Q&A with Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, Campaign Coordinator of the CSA
Vanessa Flores-Maldonado is the campaign coordinator for the Providence Community Safety Act, a city ordinance that passed recently after four years of work from local groups like the Providence Youth Student Movement, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, and the Olneyville Neighborhood Association. The CSA passed for the first time in April but needed a second affirmative city council vote before it got to Mayor Jorge Elorza’s desk. Before the second vote could happen, the city council tabled the ordinance following opposition from the police union. A working group was formed that included police and community members; they made compromises on the ordinance, including renaming it to the Providence Community-Police Relations Act. The ordinance passed for a second time on June 1, and Mayor Elorza signed it a week later.
Flores-Maldonado came on as campaign coordinator in January of 2015.
To start off, could you can explain the Providence Community-Police relations act in your own words?
We still refer to it as the CSA (Community Safety Act) just because why not? But the CSA is basically, we don’t want to say comprehensive, but it’s an ordinance focused on police accountability. The goal of this was to try to create some sort of system that would help the people of Providence feel that they have some power over the police department. It has 12 key points that range from banning certain types of profiling, to the gang database, to providing interpretation for people with limited English proficiency. So it is a lot, but the point of this was to try to make it so that the community in Providence feels like they have some power, they have some way of getting some form of justice when they’ve been harassed or beaten up or anything by the police department. So that’s what the CSA is about, it’s literally about community safety.
What do you see as the biggest problems with how the Providence Police do their work, that led people in the community to feel like they needed this ordinance?
I think one problem is that they don’t acknowledge that there is a problem. There’s still this, oh but we’re not Los Angeles, Ferguson, or New York, we’re Providence! And that kind of mentality is dangerous because when you do have instances of police violence, then the police department and the city are not equipped to deal with it. One of the problems is that you have cases that don’t gain as much attention and coverage as they should because people don’t realize that police brutality does also happen in Providence. Unfortunately we also don’t have the data that we need to back it up. All we have is people telling their stories and sharing it amongst themselves, and for some people that’s not enough. They need hard statistics, numbers saying Providence faces x number of police harassment cases a year.
In a lot of coverage of the CSA I see people saying that no major police shootings have happened in Providence. What’s your response to that in relation to the CSA?
I think that statistic is no fatal police shootings and that’s the key word. So we haven’t had the police kill someone in Providence, I’m sure we’ve had the police shoot someone. But is that really the standard that we’re setting for ourselves? That’s a really pathetic standard, that the police haven’t killed anyone this year so we’re fine. No, that’s not what the standard needs to be. The standard needs to be that the police department has actively helped and aided communities of color.
There are the 12 points and they’re all sort of disconnected but have the broader goal of increased police accountability. I’m wondering if you know how the authors made these points and compiled all of these issues?
Some of those points are because this is what people saw in their communities and it needed to be fixed. For example, the video recording point in there, that came because one of the members of the coalition, a member of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), John Prince, had video recorded police officers harassing someone outside of his house. And he was recording from within his home. He was fine legally; there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. Yet the police officers saw him doing that and proceeded to chase him and tackle him inside his own home and take the cellphone away from him and delete the video of them harassing this person. And so we have these stories happening within our coalition, within our own people, and we have to have a point address that. Not specifically that incident, but incidents like that where people want to record police but don’t know, legally am I allowed to? What are the repercussions of this?
So some of these points are disconnected, but they are things that do consistently happen to the same group of people. You have people who don’t have enough English proficiency to understand what’s happening when police are interrogating them about their son being in the gang database. One of our members, that happened to him, where he doesn’t understand English but he still had a police officer interrogating him about his son being on the gang database, asking where is your son we know he’s a gang member. We’re hoping that we’ve created these points that will address stories like that, where it’s multiple things happening at the same time.
You talked earlier about the gang database, and I know that’s been a tougher part of the CSA. Can you talk a little about what the gang database is, and what the issues around it are?
For a good while, and to this day, we don’t know what qualifies someone to be on the gang database. And that’s a huge problem. Because then how do we know that the “right people” are on the gang database? What we want to make sure is that people who are on that database “deserve” to be on that database. The gang database is really weird and uncomfortable to talk about for me, especially because Rhode Island has that gang enhancement bill where they can automatically add 10 years to your sentence if you’re a gang member. And that’s scary, if you find yourself on the gang database but you don’t even know that you’re on the gang database.
So, the section of the CSA on the gang database wanted to one, have people know when they get placed on it and two, create an appeals process. So if they are innocent, not a gang member, they can get their name off that list. And three, make sure that information of that person being a suspected gang member isn’t being released to schools, employment, housing. And four, also limit the criteria for being a gang member. That was actually something we were still working out with the city working group. One of the things we had on there was assocation, so just because you associate with a gang member doesn’t mean you are a gang member. That’s something we went back and forth on a lot, and it’s still in the ordinance. So if you do associate with a gang member, you cannot automatically be put into the gang database. But that was something we got a lot of pushback on. That’s pretty much that section, but it’s now been changed so that it only applies to youth, people 18 years and younger to get the notification. It sucks, because we wanted that to be for everyone, but compromises had to be made.
Do you have stories of people who have faced problems because of the gang database?
We had during the public hearing, a couple youth come up and share their stories. Southeast Asian youth, who say police pulled me over, or I was walking home and all of the sudden four cop cars came down on me and were taking my things and searching my pockets and saying what gang are you a part of? I know you’re part of a gang because you’re Cambodian. Race can’t be a part of determining if someone’s a gang member, especially because Providence is kind of segregated. You do have pockets with only Southeast Asians, pockets with Black folks, pockets with Latinx folks. So if your criteria for gang members is based on race, where you live, who you associate with, then entire neighborhoods would be in the gang database. We did have a lot of youth say I was just at home or my friend’s house and the cops came in and started harassing us and saying you have to let us take your picture, otherwise we’ll put you on the gang database. Or one of you is on the gang database and you have to do what we say, otherwise we’ll arrest you. These are stories that we’ve heard and are part of our community and our everyday lives and that’s why we had to write this ordinance.
I want to talk about the last couple of months. The ordinance was passed unanimously in April, and then on the day of the second vote a week later, it was tabled following a very strong letter of opposition from the police union. What did it feel like then when the ordinance didn’t get a vote?
A lot of us were so upset and so heartbroken. To see some of our youth who have been doing this for four years, some of them have been doing this since they were 12, 14, have all their hard work and efforts just be stalled that was heartbreaking.
How did it feel when you finally got the unanimous affirmative vote on June 1st?
It’s what we expected, but it was still relief. Because we expected to get it passed a month ago, so a couple of us were still very nervous going into the space, wondering if they would actually vote yes or pull something again. Especially because the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) had once again come out with a letter saying we don’t support this ordinance. But once it passed, we were ecstatic, we were happy, we were relieved, but we still realized that we had Elorza’s signature to get. I think at this point that’s our mentality, like, oh yes this is happening that’s great, but we still have work that we need to get done.
How about now that you have his signature?
Yeah, it hasn’t sunk in for some of us. It’s great. It’s amazing. Again, we expected him to sign it, especially since he’s been saying for a while now he’d support it. But it would’ve been nice to have a little ceremony. I’m gonna be a little bitter about that. ‘Cause he just signed it Thursday and there was no fanfare, there was just a press release saying that he did it. So yeah, we’re really happy about that and we’re happy that it’s officially passed now I guess. I think we’re a little bit shell shocked and need some time to process.
This is one of the most progressive police ordinances in the country. Do you think it will serve as a model for other cities?
It definitely is going to be a model. Even before we got it passed, we’ve been working with other places who want to pass their own version. Even now, I’m getting some folks who want to know how did this happen, how do we make it happen here? For example the Executive Director of PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement) was on the phone with an organization down in North Carolina who want to start their own version.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I want to emphasize community being the key word. We’ve had other folks try to take credit for this, but I think that we need to recognize that this really was about community. The people who wrote this, who have been there since the beginning and later on, are the people who are really being harassed by the police. So for us as we’re moving into implementation and celebration we really want to emphasize that this wasn’t Mayor Elorza, this wasn’t city councilors, and this definitely wasn’t the police. This was never about community police relations. This was about people who have been a part of this coalition saying we need to protect ourselves and our families. They came together and wrote this beautiful piece of work. And so, I just want folks to remember that always. This was community power.
Note: This version of the story contains more of the interview than the radio version, which had to be cut due to time constraints.