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ACLU Criticizes Narragansett Proposal To Charge Residents for “Police Response Costs”

Posted: November 15, 2011|

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Calling it “the latest in the Town’s continuing, and increasingly draconian, actions aimed at students and landlords,” the RI ACLU has urged the Narragansett Town Council to reject passage of an ordinance, scheduled for a final vote on Monday, allowing the Town to recover “police response costs” for responding to alleged “disturbances” in the community.

Under the proposal, homeowners, landlords, tenants, guests or other “responsible parties” would be required to pay “response costs,” including the salaries of police officers, if police investigate a “disturbance” at the same property twice in one year.

In a letter to the Town Council, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown began by expressing a “fundamental” disagreement with the ordinance’s underlying premise: “that special costs should be imposed on residents to re-pay police simply for doing the job they are already getting paid to do. If a person is engaging in conduct that violates any of the innumerable town ordinances relating to disorderly conduct, there are financial and other penalties already associated with those violations. That is the proper way for the Town to address the issue.” The proposal, however, would require people to pay even if they are not charged with a crime. In fact, once a warning is issued to “responsible parties,” every person is on the hook for paying the “response costs” if police return thereafter.

The ACLU letter argued that the ordinance will “turn alleged disturbances of the peace into a fundraising activity for the Town. In fact, in some instances, it creates a perverse incentive – in light of the fiscal incentive for the Town’s coffers, it will now be in the Town’s interest to encourage people to complain to the police about disturbances that do not rise to the level of criminal conduct.” The ACLU also suggested the ordinance could be used to escalate neighborhood feuds, since a party will know that by merely calling the police about a “disturbance,” he or she can ensure that their neighbor will be left with a hefty bill to pay.

At the same time, the ACLU pointed out that the proposal could “actually deter the reporting of crimes that should be reported,” such as “victims of domestic violence thinking twice before picking up the phone to call the police, knowing that by doing so, they might find themselves responsible for paying a bill for the police response or, just as problematic, creating a situation for their landlord who will also be on the hook for paying the police and will therefore not look kindly on the victim’s plight. This is intolerable.” In support of that concern, the R.I. Coalition Against Domestic Violence has also written the Town Council to urge rejection of the ordinance.

The ACLU letter also stated that the ordinance leaves “completely within the discretion of the responding officer to decide whether a 'disturbance' occurred," and the appeal process, “which occurs only after costs have been imposed, and thus provides no opportunity whatsoever for contesting the validity of the original warning – is also completely arbitrary, providing no standards at all for the Town to use in determining whether to uphold or void a response cost charge.”

In recent years, the Town has passed a plethora of punitive ordinances designed to crack down on loud parties and other instances of disorderly behavior, including the so-called “orange sticker” ordinance, which a federal court upheld only after placing some limitations on its use.

The letter concluded:

“We recognize and appreciate the frustration that some people may have about disorderly activities taking place in their neighborhoods. This is a legitimate problem, but it is not unique to Narragansett, and certainly not unique to Narragansett as a neighbor "university town." At some point, the Town must realize that its continued focus on punitive measures is counter-productive. Piling additional penalties onto offenses that are already illegal only creates additional problems, puts innocent people at risk of punishment, may discourage the proper use of the police and, ultimately, sets a poor precedent in requiring town residents to pay for a service that they are already paying for.”

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