A new focus on internal discipline
The only insignia Petrella wears these days is the logo of his employer, Dunbar Armored. He works late, and stays up still later, poring over the facts of his case. For the past two years, Petrella’s quest to regain his job has been nothing short of a personal crusade. Every name and date in the events surrounding his dismissal has been meticulously committed to memory.
The eight departmental charges brought against Petrella in June 2005 relate to a case two years prior in which another officer, John Lough, was charged with embezzlement and fired. (The embezzled item in question was a mini-bike valued at $325.) Petrella, who worked the same beat as Lough, was linked to the incident, but never charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
But these days, according to former union president Robert Paniccia (who was succeeded by Lieutenant Kenneth Cohen in an October 11 union election), minor infractions that might have once resulted in suspensions are now being heard before full Bill of Rights hearings, the final step before an officer is terminated.
Paniccia — who describes Esserman’s administrative style as “unilateral” and “arrogant” — says the chief is determined to “totally reorganize discipline and do so by firing as many people as he can,” particularly those that disagree with him.
And while Esserman has brought the Providence Police Department national distinction and a new sense of pride, some say that criticism of the chief has been silenced along the way. (The Providence Journal, a journalistic nemesis of Cianci, has been far kinder to Cicilline, perhaps because of a belief that he fosters brighter economic prospects in Rhode Island’s capital city.)
“I’ve never seen officers be so afraid,” says one sergeant, who asked to not be identified. “I don’t think [discipline] is applied fairly or judiciously across officers,” he says, “though not many of us are willing to come forward.” Those who had ties to Cianci are automatically made suspect, he says. (While on the force, Petrella was assigned to work a detail as one of Cianci’s drivers.)
Prior to Esserman’s arrival, many residents, particularly those in the poorer parts of town, regarded the police with sharp skepticism and deep-seated cynicism. For years, high-profile incidents such as the 2000 shooting of Cornel Young Jr., a black off-duty police officer shot and killed by two white officers while trying to stop a fight outside a diner in Providence, had tarnished residents’ trust.
Before Esserman, Internal Affairs “blocked civilian complaints and actively prevented investigations into officers’ records,” says Andrew Horwitz, who directs the Criminal Defense Clinic at Roger Williams University Law School.
Now, Internal Affairs takes a far more proactive approach. A new computerized system monitors personnel records, flagging officers’ files when troublesome behavioral patterns emerge. Supervisors and officers are required to document more of their actions, says Inspector Colon.
“It sends a message,” says Teny Gross, executive director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in South Providence, an Esserman fan whose street workers are a part of Providence’s success in reducing violent crime. “It lets the community know that [Internal Affairs] is an important part of how the department functions.”
Yet there’s little doubt that Esserman, a Dartmouth College-New York University Law School grad who never worked as a patrolman, is an unusual cop — and one with an acid temper.
During an interview at the station, he excoriated me for questioning the consistency of in-house discipline, eventually saying that I should be “ashamed,” and stalking out of the room. Nevertheless, before walking out, Esserman said that what some may perceive as unfair is simply the holding of officers to an appropriately high standard. “Your badge doesn’t protect you,” he says. “If you lie or violate the rules, you don’t deserve to stand with us.”
But Horwitz remains concerned that officers still face inconsistent discipline under Esserman.
Horwitz cites one of his pending complaints filed with Internal Affairs, against an officer charged with misconduct. While a department hearing officer told him that the allegations are probably true, Horwitz says, the hearing officer also told him the charges are likely to be dismissed because the administration holds the other officer, who has recently been promoted, in favor.
“Some officers are severely reprimanded and lose their jobs,” says another patrolman. “Others don’t even get a slap on the wrist.”
Colon — who maintains that policing his peers is the toughest job on the force — shakes his head at such statements. “It’s a complex function we perform,” he says, adding that two people can violate the same rule and be differently disciplined, depending on their history. “There’s no disciplinary matrix that says if you violate this rule, this is what your punishment will be,” Colon says. “We do the best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist who studies police accountability, says allegations of inconsistent internal discipline are common in law enforcement, but difficult to investigate or prove. (A 2003 study by the Office of the Inspector General found that FBI employees shared a “strong” perception of double-standards in officer disciplining.)
“The recent trend is police departments trying to clean up their problems,” says Alpert, “but how they do it is all over the board.”
To an extent, some inconsistencies in internal disciplining are unavoidable, notes Daniel Richman, a criminal law expert and professor at Columbia Law School. “The real question to think about isn’t whether people are being disciplined differently,” says Richman, “but if certain people are being unfairly targeted within a department.”