In the past weeks I’ve had two conversations with David Provencher, New Bedford Chief of Police. What follow are excerpts from those talks.
MBM: I’m trying to understand what’s going on with Guatemalan immigrants and the Mayan community, and the attacks perpetrated on them. How do you see the situation?
DP: We’ve worked with at least four different groups representing the Mayan community, going back as far as 2000. I have to be honest, it’s a very difficult community to integrate into. Understanding the cultural issues, and pervasive fear of government and institutions, and immigration status – all those things – we’ve tried to address them as clearly as we can. I’ve gone so far as to say “I don’t give a damn about your immigration status, I want to protect you.” And our biggest hurdle is that they refuse to report the crimes.
The bottom line is we can only go so far in prevention without community members’ assistance – in letting us know what happened, where and when it happened, providing us with descriptions of assailants; to not travel alone, to not carry large sums of money. It’s very difficult to have as big an impact on protecting what is, quite simply, the most vulnerable segment of the society that we have. It’s really, really difficult to get through to them.
MBM: Are there other behaviors you’d like them to change?
DP: The big gorilla in the room is extreme intoxication, particularly on the nights of pay day. Unfortunately it’s a reality.
These folks work really hard. They don’t have a lot at their disposal to enjoy life. They get paid, and they drink – and they drink too much. And then they’re wandering around late at night, with wads of cash in their pockets, and they’re pretty much defenseless at that point, so they’re easy victims.
MBM: Sometimes these people are unconscious, not because of alcohol, but because of the attack. So what percentage of these crimes involve people who are intoxicated?
DP: I have no idea what the percentage is off the top of my head. The injection of alcohol into the circumstance makes it easier for them to be victims. But the fact of the matter is, it’s the other factors – the large sums of money, being alone, and their unwillingness to report the crimes – that make them so vulnerable. The single greatest reason that the Mayan community is victimized is because the world at large knows they’re not going to call me. It’s widely recognized that, because of their fear of government, maybe their immigration status, their cultural fears, they don’t contact the police. That is the single biggest hurdle to protecting them.
MBM: I am hearing that people do report the crimes, and that it still isn’t working.
DP: I don’t agree with that statement, and I’ll tell you why. Nobody’s waiting for something to happen before we do anything. We have officers out there specifically targeting these areas, doing high-energy patrols, stopping and questioning anybody who’s in that area who doesn’t look to have a purpose, and they’re doing that every day. So I don’t agree at all that we’re waiting for reports to come in. Ninety percent of our work is preventative in nature – we’re trying to get out ahead of it. Our job is to prevent crime, so I don’t agree at all that we’re somehow sitting back, waiting for a 911 call before we do anything.
I cannot put a police officer on every porch from Cove Street to Nash Road, along North Front, to prevent every single assault in that neighborhood from happening. I can’t have a line of cops on bicycles from Price Rite back to the North End, I can’t have somebody at Market Basket every ten feet to provide safe passage from your door to the store and back. That’s just not realistic in any society.
MBM: What about the resources? I saw back in 2007 there were 6 new Spanish-speaking officers, who then needed to be laid off.
DP: In the first decade of the 2000s we were up towards 300 officers [in a city of 96,000 residents]. Then in 2009 we were down to 250, and we’re back up to 275 now. Am I where I want to be? No. I would prefer to be at 310, then I could do all the things I’d like to do.
MBM: Victims think that the people doing the attacks are mostly African-American kids and, they think, Puerto Rican kids. Is that true? How big is this group? Where do they come from?
DP: First of all, it’s not a group and it’s not a gang. It’s just individuals with one shared value, and that shared value is: I’m gonna get mine, and if it means taking it from you, that’s what I’m going to do. It’s a culture that doesn’t have conscience or a moral sense of right and wrong. Now there’s a bunch of reasons for the development of that culture that goes way beyond anything you or I are going to do to fix it. Let’s just say this community are the antelope, the wildebeest, maybe some elephants, and there’s a big watering hole that’s called New Bedford. The jackals, the hyenas, and the lions know that all those other animals have got to go to the watering hole to drink. So they wait on the paths that the antelope and the wildebeest will use, and then they eat them. They are predators, and they feast on the weak and the vulnerable. And they select their victims the same way that the lion and the hyenas select theirs: they separate one from the herd – the smallest, the weakest, the injured – and they attack that one.
MBM: How many people – predators – are we talking about?
DP: I would say that it’s less than 1,000. Probably more than 500 who are actively engaged across the city in violent crime. But that’s purely an anecdotal estimate. There’s an argument that poverty, lack of education, the lack of jobs and the inability to get one – once you have a record, you’re not getting a job – all play a part.
MBM: Why aren’t they getting jobs at the fish processing plants, where many of the Mayans are working?
DP: They don’t want to work that hard. And they don’t want to work for minimum wage. I am far from the most progressive guy in the world, but I recognize the way out is for them to get jobs, to make them employable. I think they understand that there’s good money to be made dealing [drugs], there’s easy money to be made robbing. But the risk-return isn’t that good. And quite frankly we’ve gotten a whole lot better at putting people in jail than we were ten years ago. But you’ve got to give them 18 months to two years of transitional employment where they can learn the skill sets that are necessary to keep their jobs. So that when you get ‘em into a real job in a real company, they’re not going to get fired in the first week because they don’t know the basics of showing up on time and not getting high at lunch.
MBM: The robbery victims are suffering severe wounds – multiple stab wounds, baseball bats to the head, lost eyes. So if the robberies are just about the money, why are they so violent?
DP: I don’t have the answer to that one. I think that it has to do with the offender profile. And you know, one of the things I’ve seen over the years is that the weaker and more submissive the victim, oftentimes the more vicious the attack.
I’m not discounting that there may be some level of bias. But without any overt element to support the hate basis for the crime, the only alternative is to blanketly charge, and that waters down the effectiveness of the charge. I’m not trying to diminish the problem or deny its existence. I’m trying to find a practical answer in the real world for the violence we’re trying to deal with.
MBM: One question that hasn’t come up as we’ve talked about crimes of opportunity is whether these are also hate crimes – whether some of these attacks are taking place because the victims are Guatemalan.
DP: That’s always a question and a dilemma we face, and it’s not easy to answer. Should we say that any time we have this type of attack on an individual from this group, that we automatically charge a hate crime, even though all the elements aren’t present, and take our chances that the DA will substantiate their charge and allow the complaints to follow? It’s a very delicate balance and a difficult call for the line officers to make. Because oftentimes they’re seeing things only from the worm’s-eye view and they don’t get to see the larger picture or trend.
MBM: If the biggest unresolved issue toward protecting these people is that they don’t come forward and cooperate with you, and we know that, culturally, that’s not going to happen any time soon, what happens next?
DP: Since we talked I have thought about this quite a bit. I haven’t got a solid complete answer to what the next step might be, but I think it leans toward a more aggressive stance in charging hate crimes whenever there’s an opportunity, when it comes to this population or group. I think that offers us a better level of success because I think that’s the barometer that they use, in terms of assessing their victimization. They see them, all of these attacks, as based against them as a culture, not just as victims of opportunity. And so I think if we alter our mindset and how we approach it, that may turn the tide.
We in the police department have talked about looking for overt measures and elements of bias, and maybe we need to lower that bar, set the bar at: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we’re going to call it a duck. And bring those charges [of bias] even though we may not feel it’s the strongest case, if we can make the argument that one exists, levy the charge.