Crime, politics and public perception

Posted 8/11/21

For weeks, a supposed drama has been playing out over whether Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza would sign off on allowing State Police to help with patrols in Rhode Island's capital city. Thing is, the State Police have traditionally boosted the police

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Crime, politics and public perception

Posted

For weeks, a supposed drama has been playing out over whether Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza would sign off on allowing State Police to help with patrols in Rhode Island’s capital city.

Thing is, the State Police have traditionally boosted the police presence in Providence over the summer for many years.

As police well know, crime typically spikes in the warmer months of American cities. That doesn’t make such spikes any less concerning, especially when a young woman standing on Olney Street was fatally shot, or when another woman reported being dragged from her car as part of an assault by a group of ATV and dirt bike riders.

At the same time, crime – because of how it can trigger wider public anxiety – doubles as a political football. Perhaps as a result, we’ve seen ongoing skirmishes between Elorza and other pols, notably Gov. Dan McKee, City Council President John Igliozzi, and even Cranston Mayor Ken Hopkins (who put out a statement saying he won’t let Providence crime seep into his city).

This doesn’t mean that McKee, Igliozzi and Hopkins don’t have real concerns. But there’s sometimes a fuzzy line between effectively responding and creating an exaggerated public perception about the frequency of crime (which, for the most part, has declined significantly since the early 1990s). So even as Rhode Island and other states move away from the ethos of the war on drugs, remember this bygone observation from Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox: in talking about crime, politicians focus on the three Rs – revenge, retaliation, and retribution, because it leads to the fourth R – re-election.

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State Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence) is one of the RI Political Cooperative-backed candidates who challenged the State House in 2020. She ousted longtime Sen. Harold Metts, a socially conservative Democrat, beating him by about 20 points in a district that stretches from Upper South Providence to Mount Hope.

Mack, 27, defines herself as a queer Black woman who wants to change the status quo on Smith Hill. In her view, a different network of support services is needed to reduce crime, and she supports funding this by cutting resources for traditional policing.

“The vast majority of crime happens between people who know each other and people who live in the same community,” Mack said on Political Roundtable last week. “The police are not preventing those crimes … What we need to be focusing on is how can we create safer and more fruitful communities where they have the resources to address those issues … The conversation about defunding the police can not be divorced from having robust mental health services in our schools, from K through 12. It cannot be divorced from the conversation of having access to comprehensive health care and more health care resources in our communities. And so a lot of folks think of these as isolated issues, but we are talking about a network of comprehensive policy that create stronger communities that ultimately do not need policing in the way that we see it now.”

***

One more from Sen. Mack. She grew up in Georgia and South Carolina and found a new world at Brown University, from which she graduated in 2016. Mack represents quite a contrast from the traditional legislative mainstream, so I asked her to describe her experience in the General Assembly.

“It is definitely not what I expected,” Mack said on Roundtable, “and a lot of the decision-making, I don’t think is, the way I expected. You can be as well-read, you can have all the statistics, you can be well-spoken and you can have all the support you want in the world, but a lot of it is about leveraging relationships and leveraging power. And that is some of the fundamental things that I want to change about how the Senate works … You can be a collaborator with every single person in that building, but we cannot be kind when it comes to addressing the injustices and the violence that people experience on a systemic level every single day.”

Mack said progressives plan to run their own candidates for Senate president and majority leader during the next leadership election in 2023.

***

Kate Coyne-McCoy brought years of experience in supporting pro-choice women candidates when she signed on earlier this year as chief strategist for the RI Democratic Party. Now, Coyne-McCoy remains under fire from conservatives and progressive women after a late night tweet in which, referring to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), she said, “It’s wrong to hope he dies from COVID, right? Asking for a friend. #CovidIsNotOver #Lindsey Graham.”

Coyne-McCoy deleted the tweet and posted another one, saying she made a mistake and regretted her earlier action. RI GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki continues to call for Coyne-McCoy to resign – a move backed by the RI Democratic Women’s Caucus – although House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, while condemning the initial tweet, has stuck by Coyne-McCoy.

***

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence has not responded to requests for comment, although the Diocese has agreed to mediation in the long-running lawsuit over the St. Joseph’s pension. That’s significant, since the Diocese is the last defendant not to settle in the case.

In the past, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin dismissed the idea that the church had a moral obligation to help make whole about 2,700 pensioners; he suggested the responsibility lay with L.A.-based Prospect Medical Holdings, which bought Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in 2014 (and which settled for about $27 million earlier this year).

A bitingly different view comes from former AG Arlene Violet, who represents the pensioners on a pro bono basis.

“The sole pronouncement made repeatedly by the bishop is that he isn’t responsible,” Violet wrote in The Valley Breeze. “Unlike the other defendants who claimed the same thing before settling he sees not even a moral responsibility to make good on the Church’s promise to these workers. His recent construction of a mausoleum complete with 720 cremation niches (cremation once frowned upon by the Church) cost about $12.3 million which he now seeks to sell. He refers to the construction as a ‘corporal work of mercy.’ His purported reason for the construction was to ensure respect for the dead. Now only if he could muster up the same respect for the living retirees.”

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RI’s Health Services Council (HSC), which advises the state Department of Health, commissioned an independent review of a proposed $42 million 50-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital in Johnston. The proposal, for patients with issues like strokes and broken hips, was from Alabama-based Encompass Health, which bills itself as the nation’s largest provider of inpatient rehabs.

The independent review by the Faulkner Consulting Group found that Rhode Island already had enough inpatient rehab beds to last through 2030, and that only 63 percent of such beds were occupied in 2018. Despite that, the HSC narrowly voted last year to recommend the facility, and state Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott approved the plan.

Now, following a series of appeals by opponents, a state hearing officer has overturned the approval, ruling that the applicant did not demonstrate need for the project. While some, like Rep. David Place (R-Burrillville), describe this as a loss for the free market, it’s also possible that a large entity would accept losses to build its share in a new market.

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Eight years after the “Superman Building” went dark, a solution for the challenge posed by the iconic Jazz Age building remains elusive. Gov. Dan McKee last week floated a possible demolition – a concept first mentioned years ago when Angel Taveras was Providence mayor – although he called a retrofit more likely. Some say the math just doesn’t work without a subsidy to make “Superman” suitable for a new use.

In a statement, the Providence Preservation Society said talk of demolition is disappointing: “In 2020, RISD graduate interior architecture students proved that creativity is not the issue. They designed seven imaginative and vastly different, but realistic, reuse schemes for the vacant building – from housing to vertical farming to entertainment. The Providence Preservation Society and Building Enclosure Science wrote a white paper to dispel the prevailing notion that the building is crumbling. And yet certain media continue to perpetuate the impression that the building is a lost cause. It is not. There is a strong argument for the preservation of this architecturally and historically significant structure – still the tallest building in Rhode Island – and the place it holds in the city’s skyline and psyche of Rhode Islanders. We support this argument categorically. More importantly, however, we now face an environmental imperative to reuse the building and not send it to a landfill. Demolition is a lazy, ignorant, and not inexpensive option. The adaptive reuse of the Superman Building can and should be the goal and made a priority of elected officials and civic and business leaders. We hope the near lapse of the current building owner’s tax bill and potential for a tax sale, along with the unfortunate emphasis on only part of the Governor’s recent comment, will lead to productive and ambitious conversation and action about this vacant landmark building, our skyline superhero.”

***

The boomerang of the pandemic remains a wild card in Rhode Island’s 2022 race for governor. For now, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner holds a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage over Gov. Dan McKee.

***

For all the talk of Rhode Island’s punishing tax and business climate, you like us (to paraphrase Sally Field), you like us right now!

How else to explain this information from the RI Association of Realtors last week: “Out-of-state buyers of single-family homes, multi-family homes and condominiums during April through June increased 69 percent from the same period last year. Buyers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York comprised the bulk of out-of-state buyers both years. Buyers from California and Florida rounded out the top five. Buyers from other states accounted for 26 percent of the total sales in the second quarter of this year, up from 21 percent in 2020.”

Of course, this finding reinforced something that has been true for many years – if you have a decent job, Rhode Island is a pretty good place to live. Even more so perhaps if you have more moola. As the association noted, 47 percent of buyers of homes priced at $1 million or more were sold to out of staters.

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RI House Minority Leader Blake Filippi may be keeping his powder dry as far as a potential run for higher office next year, but he’s still hammering the operation of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services – an issue he launched back when Nick Mattiello was speaker.

After General Treasurer Seth Magaziner recently announced a lawsuit against Facebook, Filippi tweeted, “Cleaning house starts at home. I’m currently suing Treasurer Magaziner and

@DanMcKeeRI’s administration to get them to stop illegally spending $46 MILLION per year of JCLS monies – as directed by Democrat legislative leadership from secret rooms. No votes. No public meetings.”

Magaziner spokeswoman Patricia Socarras offered this response: “Treasurer Magaziner supports any effort to improve accountability and transparency in matters of public finance. The Treasurer’s Office does not have the legal authority to unilaterally withhold funds that have been appropriated by the legislature, absent a court order to do so.”

In a statement, Speaker Joe Shekarchi said, “I was planning to have regular public meetings of JCLS after Leader Filippi lost his first lawsuit. But after Leader Filippi filed a second lawsuit, personally suing all of the current members of the JCLS, the public hearings have been put on hold, upon the advice of our respective legal counsels, until the pending lawsuit has been resolved.”

***

Would businesswoman Helena Foulkes consider running for treasurer next year? Foulkes’ look at a possible gubernatorial run has tantalized political observers in recent weeks. With an ability to self-fund, Foulkes has the potential to craft a different profile from the other announced and expected Democratic candidates. Yet pulling a Raimondo and running initially for treasurer would be a more low-risk strategy, with an uncertain effect on the potential field of candidates, including Stefan Pryor, Nick Autiello, James Diossa, Ryan Pearson, and Allan Fung.

***

As we mull whether the Red Sox’ mid-summer swoon is a blip or something worse, take pride in the Rhody credentials of John Montgomery Ward. While pitching for the Providence Grays in 1880, he pitched only the second perfect game in professional baseball history. Ward went on to craft a luxuriant mustache, to bat .335 in 1890 after becoming a position player, and he “quickly developed into a links master,” upon taking up golf after retiring from baseball.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. You can follow him on Twitter @IanDon. To read a longer version of this column, or to sign up for email delivery, visit thepublicsradio.org.

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