Bullet Points

Taking the long view on an unusually bloody summer in Providence


We all heard the stories over the past several months. Amid the talk of record-setting heat, the 38 Studios meltdown and the Cicilline-Gemma spat, there was blood spattered across the Providence Journal all summer long. A troubling spike in local violence made headlines as the number of homicides in 2012 climbed to 14 by the end of August (compared to six at the same time last year). The centerpiece of the horror was a brutal triple homicide perpetrated by two juveniles during a robbery attempt.

What was happening? Why was our typically quiet city caught in a thrall of violence? Were the streets safe anymore? Were these isolated incidents or part of a larger pattern?

The answer to that last question is yes, on both counts. While spate of summertime homicides indeed represented an unusual cluster of violence, it also didn’t take us too far beyond the norm, statistically speaking. Over a 22-year-period, Providence’s murder rate peaked in the 30s and bottomed out at 11, maintaining an average of about 16 homicides a year.

“To me it’s a horror,” stresses Teny Gross, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence (or, more commonly, just the Nonviolence Institute). “We’ve had years like that, but not in such a short clip.”

Meanwhile, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare prefers to look at violent crime as a whole: other types of violent crime like robberies and aggressive assaults are down for 2012. While he recognizes the unique horror and damage caused by homicide, he maintains, “My position is that violent crime is not on the rise.”

That’s not to say he’s downplaying the impact of this violence. Rather, he’s keeping it in the larger perspective of everyday urban reality. Kobi Dennis, the founder of Project Night Vision (PNV), a nighttime intramural sports program for urban youth, takes a similar line. “This summer’s violence is no different from many summers of my past growing up in Providence,” he says.

The Nonviolence Institute’s Gross also points to the rather isolated nature of some of the violence that attracted so much attention. For instance, the fatal August 26 shooting at Monet, a Harris Avenue nightclub, was perpetrated by Massachusetts residents against Massachusetts residents. These types of random incidents involving outsiders, while still tragic, aren’t as troubling for organizations like Gross’ because their aftereffects don’t ripple out into our community the way homegrown violence does. Still, he calls nightclubs the “most predictable and preventable source of violence.”

One thing all three men agree on is that it’s not a handful of disturbing but otherwise statistically anomalous murders we need to worry about – it’s the long-term cycle of violence and poverty in which our neighbors live every day. Pare knows that a period of increased violence cannot be traced back to a single catalyst or set of circumstances. “If we had a complete understanding of what drives crime, we’d be out of business because we could eliminate it,” he says. He sees many factors contributing to the overall level of violence in a community, including economic conditions, education and job opportunities (or lack thereof), population density, substance abuse and mental health.

Both Dennis and Gross are willing to go further, pointing to what they perceive as a lack of investment in our at-risk youth that is now paying its dividends. “My personal take on the increased violence stems from cuts in youth programs,” Dennis explains.

Gross seconds that notion, calling the diminished number of police officers and Nonviolence Institute street workers “a gift of the Republicans controlling the House.” Budget cuts at the federal level have resulted in a drastic scaling back of services by local organizations like the Institute and Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education, which provides mentors to children of incarcerated parents. These nonprofits, along with others like Children’s Friend, which co-organized a June peace rally with PNV, are at the frontlines of inner city violence every day, and when they’re forced to do more with less, the results can often wind up on the evening news.

“The violence that we accept in our American cities is costing us all our other investments in early childhood, in education and, of course, in law enforcement and jails,” Gross warns. “I wish America would really realize it needs to invest in violence prevention. At the moment we’re investing very little.”

Another point on which Pare, Gross and Dennis all agree is that the relationship between the Providence Police Department (PPD) and the communities it serves is another vital factor in preventing and reacting to violence. Trust and legitimacy are crucial: in short, if people don’t feel that the police can and will help them, they may shy away from providing valuable information and cooperation to solve crimes, or worse, take justice into their own hands, furthering the cycle of violence. This is an area in which Providence has been better than average.

“Local and state law enforcement have been instrumental in helping to improve the quality of life for the youth,” says Dennis. “Providence Police have helped to increase positive relations between the teens who would normally rebel from efforts involving law enforcement.” Gross too sees the PPD’s community policing approach as an ameliorating factor; when we spoke, he had just completed a trip to cities like Oakland and Los Angeles. “Relationships between inner city communities and police departments all over the country are very difficult,” he cautions, but admits that Providence Police are “at the better end of the spectrum.”

Still, Pare says that continued cooperation is needed to make law enforcement more effective at curbing crime in our inner city neighborhoods, and there needs to be more trust on both sides. “I believe the community is becoming more engaged with being a part of the solution,” he says. “Without the community’s help and cooperation, we couldn’t do what we’re charged to do. There are witnesses. There are people who have knowledge about all these crimes. We can solve all these problems if people are willing to cooperate.”

So what really happened in Providence this summer? Why was there such a gruesome outburst of homicides? The answer is that we’ll never know and even if we could it wouldn’t solve the problem. As long as generations of inner city youth are stuck in a cycle of poverty, feeling unsafe in their own neighborhoods, deprived of sustainable opportunities to better themselves through education or employment, raised in dysfunctional homes, and surrounded by the temptations of drugs and gang life, there will be violence in our cities. There will be ebbs and flows, sudden spikes and prolonged periods of relative quiet, but the threat will always be there. The kind of violence that makes splashy headlines is not what we should fear, but rather the continued existence of what Gross calls “combat zones” right here in our own city. We continue to invest little in these underserved communities at our own peril. Sooner or later the bill will come due – and too often it will have to be paid in blood.