Stops short of supporting defunding police

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Town Manager Andrew Nota said last week it’s time for the community of East Greenwich to deal with racism but said he did not agree with the recent call by some around the country to defund the police, calling it “an overreaction.” 

As it happens, Nota’s proposed budget for 2021 does in fact lower funding for police by leaving 2 of the department’s 34 officer positions vacant. 

According to Police Chief Steven Brown, funding for the police goes up and down “all the time,” with the defunding happening as it is proposed for next year – by not replacing an officer when that officer leaves.  

“I’ve been here 25 years, we haven’t grown much: 30 or 32 when I came on; 34 now,” Brown said.

On Friday, Nota said he was open to the idea of equipping police officers with body cameras. He said he had not yet had a conversation about that with the police union. Body cameras are not in the proposed 2021 budget. Police departments in at least three Rhode Island communities – Providence, Newport and Tiverton – have used body cameras.

At the Town Council meeting last Monday, Town Manager Andrew Nota outlined a few of his thoughts, leaving it to the Town Council to decide what steps to take.

A Black Lives Matter sign in the window of an EG house.

“Why are we still in this situation in 2020?” Nota said at the meeting during his town manager’s report. “Some would say we find ourselves in this type of turmoil because we failed to address an issue like racism or inequities that are perpetuated by racism such as economic disparities and health disparities, even the use of force [by police], which was at the epicenter of this particular issue,” Nota said, referring to the killings by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, to name two of the most recent examples. 

“As a community, we need to be comfortable having this conversation,” Nota said. He said the community should be “actively involved” in resolving “this societal issue,” then quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition to seemingly good-hearted but ineffectual “supporters” of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s: “We’ll remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

Nota said he was recommending the formation of a town diversity council to be made up of members from police, fire, the school department, the faith community, businesses, parent groups, seniors and others. He said the town could also consider establishing a youth council. No specifics as yet on what either such group would undertake.

Town Council members greeted Nota’s ideas enthusiastically.

“What you said was really, really fabulous,” said Councilwoman Caryn Corenthal. “I was proud to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement yesterday and I was heartened by the number of people who showed up.” Corenthal was referring to the demonstration Sunday, June 7, on First Avenue (read more HERE).

“I called Dave Imbriglio today,” said Corenthal (Imbriglio is head of the police union). “We don’t agree on everything but we had a wonderful conversation. We can have conversations with people we disagree with and be respectful and discuss things.”

Councilman Mike Donegan said he’d like to hear more about how EG police are trained and what the department’s procedures are in case of difficult situations where lethal force has been used by other departments. 

Council President Mark Schwager said it was a good start. “People are galvanized. All of us are talking about these issues,” he said. “I’ve seen how existing policies and laws can block racial justice” in everything from criminal justice system to education to housing. It’s our duty, Schwager said, to redo these institutions so they work for everyone..

Nota also appeared with Bob Houghtaling, the town’s substance abuse and mental health counselor, in a Facebook Live video last week, talking about some of these issues. You can find that HERE.

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