- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Members of law enforcement heard Monday night from community members about the often-strained relationships between police and minorities at a forum that raised concerns including the use of force, racial profiling and the lack of diversity among officers.

State police, Providence police, the Providence NAACP and several community groups co-hosted the forum, which drew nearly 200 people to the South Providence Recreation Center. The forum follows recent grand jury decisions not to indict the white police officers who killed two unarmed black men: Michael Brown, who was shot dead on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, who died after what a medical examiner said was a chokehold in New York City.

The Brown and Garner cases have prompted demonstrations across the country, including in Providence, where hundreds of activists marched recently, shouting “Black lives matter!” and blocking downtown streets.

Forum participant Claudia Castellanos, who attended with two young boys, said she feels that community policing is non-existent and that officers know minority communities only through making arrests or responding to service calls. She said it can feel as though police are “vigilantes that brutally enforce the law.”

Sheila Wilhelm, who has raised six children in the city, said she has witnessed profiling and the use of force firsthand over the years. She said her 20-year-old son one day was stopped twice by police while on his way to work. She said her granddaughter has told her not to wear a hoodie because “police are going to shoot you.”

One man referred to law enforcement as a racist institution that “oppresses us on a daily basis.” Another stood silently with a sign reading, “Cops Are Not Above the Law.”

Providence police Chief Hugh Clements and state police superintendent Col. Steven O’Donnell fielded many of the questions from the racially diverse crowd. Dozens of uniformed state troopers and other police officers attended. Clements said his department’s aim is to police with respect.

“We preach all the time (that) dignity and respect is how you should police this community,” he said.

Clements said the force has improved its relations with the community in recent years but there is room for improvement. He said budget cuts had compromised community policing efforts, forcing the department to become “almost a 911-driven police department,” but more than 50 officers have recently been added.

“We know we can’t arrest our way out of problems in the community,” he said.

NAACP President James Vincent said before the forum that a similar meeting between law enforcement and community leaders was held before the Ferguson decision was announced last month. Some of what police heard there “wasn’t pretty,” he said, recounting stories young people told about racial profiling and why they mistrust officers.

That’s why such conversations are critical, Vincent said.

“It’s a dialogue,” he said. “I think it’s helpful. I think it helps build a relationship between the community and police.”

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