What works in providence
KEY PLAYERS: Benton, shown in Kennedy Plaza, and other street workers help to monitor beefs and mediate conflicts
In 2002, Providence had a per-capita murder rate per 100,000 residents (13.2) that placed it between such bigger cities as Boston (10.2) and Los Angeles (17.2). Although the number of homicides had dropped from a high of 30 in 2000, the ensuing body count — 23 homicides in 2001, and 22 in 2002, not to mention scores of shootings and others acts of violence — still represented a lot of carnage for New England’s second largest city.
The downward trend continued with 20 murders in 2003, 18 in 2004, an increase to 22 in 2005, and then the most dramatic reduction — to 11 — in 2006.
While this came as good news for the city, proof positive that violence in Providence’s inner city can be diminished, it will mean a lot less if it is not sustained over a longer period of time.
Teny Gross, who participated as a street worker during the so-called Boston Miracle — when homicides in that city dropped, from a high of 152 in 1990, to a 38-year low of 31 in 1999 — pursues his work with a blend of hope and well-honed realism. “I always start with luck first,” he says. “You could have one guy who doesn’t like his family and shoots four people.” When Providence murders spiked in 2005, Gross notes, there were nine homicides in and around the police district encompassing Smith Hill, the North End, and the Chad Brown housing project, and then, a year later, “almost nothing.” “Even when you do things well,” he notes, “things can erupt on you.”
That said, the street workers’ program is one component of a multi-part anti-violence strategy that Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline pledged to pursue while campaigning for office in 2002.
The other key components included improving police-community relations and the overdue implementation of community policing; aggressive enforcement and prosecution of gun crimes; a greater police presence in city schools; and expanded recreational opportunities for young people.
Community activists generally praise Esserman for improvements in the Providence Police Department since he started on the job in 2003. As the chief describes it, officers are thinking in different ways, defining their job not by their schedule, but by the area for which they are responsible.
School officials, including Superintendent Donnie Evans, regularly attend the weekly Tuesday morning command staff meeting, and there is frequent communication between the police, the schools, and the street workers. The department closely tracks data, as part of an ongoing focus, Esserman says, on crime and community. “Before,” he says, “They’d say, ‘Wait for an annual report.’ Now we can say how we did last night.”
Beyond collaborative relationships with state and federal prosecutors, the Providence police have also pursued these efforts:
• Joint patrols with the state police, starting Memorial Day weekend, on Thursday through Saturday nights through the summer and then again during the holiday season.
• Around the clock, clinicians from Family Service of Rhode Island respond to calls from police to aid children and families affected by crime. Counselors from the agency also ride with police to provide crisis intervention in high-crime areas.
• As part of a proposal by the National Urban League, Providence is among six cities taking part in the High Point Initiative, an effort to curtail drug-dealing in Upper South Providence through a mixture of enforcement and diversion for some offenders. The program, which has been lauded by residents, is now being considered for other parts of the city.
The Providence street workers, meanwhile, led by senior street worker A.J. Benton, steadily spend time in potential hot spots — like Kennedy Plaza when the schools let out — monitoring beefs, mediating conflicts among young people, and trying to provide a link to various needs.
Gross, an Israeli native who settled in Providence after being invited here after violent outbreaks in the ’90s, says being an effective street worker requires a subtly “that rivals that of a great musician or a great business leader, a subtly to where a kid is at; What are the forces acting on a kid — down to the role played by his mother and his rival?”
The 13 black, white, Asian, and Latino street workers (up from eight during the start of the nonprofit program), some who have had past brushes with the law, reflect the city as a whole. As Gross says, “It is their neighborhoods and their relatives that they’re trying to save.”
The word from the street
Cedric Huntley, who helped to establish the street workers’ program in 2003, and now works as the director of facilities and athletics at the Met School in South Providence, believes that an aggressive effort to engage the community has helped to reduce violent crime in the city. “I’m hopeful that everyone in the community stays vigilant to this process,” he says. “I’m hopeful, but I’m also a realist and know that at any time it could just erupt, and there could be a series of shootings or violent crimes.”
Joe Vileno, chairman of the 11th Ward Democratic Committee, and a longtime resident in Upper South Providence, credits the police department’s High Point Initiative, as well as active efforts by residents, with dramatically reducing the amount of drug dealing taking place on the street.
Major Paul Fitzgerald and other officers have knocked on doors to chat with neighbors as part of a heightened and faster-responding police presence in the area, he says. Vileno credits Esserman with having brought a sense of fair dealing to the police department, which previously faced a promotional exam scandal.
A different view comes from Mimi Budnick of the activist group Direct Action for Rights & Equality, which is based in Upper South Providence. While the number of murders in Providence has diminished, she says, crimes that erode families and community fabric — like drug use, breaking and entering, and prostitution — seem as prevalent as ever, Budnick says.
She credits Esserman with having some good ideas and with being genuine, but also notes how, out of the more than 100 people arrested during the High Point Initiative, only seven were offered a chance for the second-chance diversionary program. Budnick believes the effort isn’t getting at the root of the problem, and that other drug dealers will replace those who have been locked up.
Bringing more jobs and greater economic development to Providence’s poorer neighborhoods remains a tougher challenge, of course, than managing crime.
This explains why Gross and Esserman are asking the private sector to help create summer jobs for young people. As Huntley says, “Those kids that are 14 and above, they’re looking for jobs. They’re a lot of good kids out there. They want to be employed. They want an opportunity to make a few dollars for the summer and, more importantly, to occupy that time.”
Laurie White, president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, expects that Gross’s request will get a very good response from the business community. “Philosophically, people realize it’s the right thing to do, and it’s a good thing to do,” she says.
Still, while groups like the Rhode Island Foundation and the United Way of Rhode Island have put some considerable money into anti-violence and prevention programs, United Way president Tony Maione notes how the disappearance of manufacturing jobs has vexed Rhode Island.
America remains suffused by guns. In commenting on the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech, the Economist noted, “There are estimated to be some 240m [million] guns in America, considerably more than there are adults, and around a third of them are handguns, easy to conceal and use.” In criticizing American politicians for avoiding a debate on guns, the magazine cited how Democrats blame their 1994 loss of the House of Representatives on an assault-weapons ban.