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Providence gives 1st OK to major changes aimed at profiling

Rhode Island's largest city has given first passage to a sweeping new ordinance that would ban racial profiling by police and establish strict controls on how officers conduct traffic and pedestrian stops.

The Providence City Council voted 12-0 in favor of the bill, which some police leaders have warned will tie officers' hands. Three council members were absent from Thursday's vote.

Council members who sponsored it call it "one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the United States."

The bill will need to be passed a second time before it can be sent to Democratic Mayor Jorge Elorza, who has said he will sign it. The council president said the second vote won't be scheduled until the state attorney general reviews the ordinance.

The ordinance would, among numerous provisions, limit the use of a gang database and provide protections based on gender identity English-language ability, political affiliation and someone's housing status or medical conditions. And it would give more power to a civilian review board to look at alleged police misconduct. It would also bar the arrest of someone whose only crime is driving without a license.

People subjected to any violation of the ordinance would be allowed to sue for damages.

A civil rights attorney who worked on a similar ordinance in New York City said Providence's goes beyond what other cities have done, including for immigrants fearing deportation.

"It's one of the broader protections against discriminatory profiling I've seen," Andrea Ritchie said. "The provision specifying no arrest for driving without a license is particularly important."

In 2013, the New York City Council overrode vetoes from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pass an ordinance creating aggressive checks on police, including a new watchdog and easier standards for people to file profiling lawsuits.

Local advocacy groups in Providence have been pushing since 2014 to pass their own police accountability measure, known as the Community Safety Act, but only recently were activists and top city officials able to come to an agreement on its language.

"We did compromise a lot," said activist Vanessa Flores-Maldonado.

Also fueling city leaders to take up their cause was a string of cellphone videos showing officers using force on black and Latino residents. The police department responded by disciplining some officers. It has also sought to diversify its 400-member force, which is about 75 percent white in a city that's 36 percent white.

The police union remains adamantly opposed.

"The Community Safety Act is not a community meaning the residents of the city of Providence," said the head of the union, Sgt. Robert Boehm. "It's a small community of people and quite a few of them have an agenda — a dislike or distrust of police to begin with."

Boehm said some community concerns are legitimate, but the ordinance's requirements would make it hard for officers to do their jobs. As examples, he cited a requirement that would make officers write up a report on every pedestrian stop, which the pedestrian could later look up at the police station, and a prohibition on relying on family members as language interpreters.

Boehm said city leaders were rushing to pass it as a "parting gift" to one of the ordinance's champions, indicted City Councilman Kevin Jackson. Jackson has pleaded not guilty to embezzlement charges and faces a recall election on May 2.

Ritchie said it is important that elected leaders are backing the effort.

"What's really strong about the Providence legislation is it's done by the city council," said Ritchie, as opposed to an internal policy change "that can be rescinded by the next police commissioner."

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