Serving as Providence’s public safety commissioner during the waning years of Buddy Cianci’s rule must have been a thankless task. The Police Department, led through the late ’90s by the volatile Urbano Prignano Jr., was caught in a politicized, dysfunctional cycle that sowed widespread dissatisfaction. Cops were unhappy about the unresolved exam-cheating scandal, and city residents were frustrated by the city’s apparent inability to implement community policing. Through it all, John J. Partington, who died last Friday at 77, embodied the possibility of something better.
Partington had a rich law enforcement resume, having served as chief in his native Cumberland after helping, as a US marshal, to develop the fabled federal Witness Protection Program. Not surprisingly, then-mayor Joseph R. Paolino tabbed Partington as the civilian overseer of the police and fire departments in 1989, following a scandal in which a mob witness died from an accident while under police protection.
By the late ’90s, Partington lacked the juice to deliver overdue changes in the police department, but he remained appreciative, unlike some, that police are supposed to serve the community. When Prignano and his right-hand man, former Captain John J. Ryan, tried to put a positive spin on community activists’ frustration with the lack of community policing, Partington freely acknowledged that the approach represented the future of the department, albeit one that remained a tough sell for many officers. And while Prignano was wedded to a less than satisfying process for handling citizen complaints against police, Partington said, “We do need something else in place. There’s got to be something other than walking off the street into internal affairs.”
By early 2002, Richard T. Sullivan had succeeded Prignano, but a miasma of discontent remained. Without minimizing the challenges, Partington emphasized the bright side, indicating that police get insufficient credit for their day-to-day efforts. Noting that 64 percent of the department’s 469 officers had 14 or fewer years on the force, he indicated that time was on their side. “As far as the future of the department,” he told me, “I want to get the word to the youngsters — it’s yours to have.”
Partington, who was unceremoniously sacked by acting mayor John J. Lombardi in the fall of 2002, deserved better. But one suspects that even in declining health, the law enforcement veteran took some solace in the Police Department’s eventual adoption of the more public-minded approach he had long advocated.