AG Whitehouse and the Minority Community (posted February 28, 2000)

The tragic shooting of Providence police officer Cornell Young, Jr. has led to public calls by many members of the minority community for Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse to name an independent counsel to investigate the case. There long have been tense relations between the Providence police department and minorities, who allege mistreatment and harassment by law enforcement officers. The shooting of the off-duty black policeman by two white patrolman has exacerbated these tensions.

So far, Whitehouse has resisted these calls on the grounds that he has the legal authority to investigate the case, appointment of an independent prosecutor would be costly, and it would be difficult to get anyone from outside to come into the case given the emotionally-charged nature of the case.

But a Brown University survey of Whitehouse's job performance reveals deep unhappiness within the minority community. Although 48 percent of registered voters overall rate his performance excellent or good, there is a major racial gap. Fifty-two percent of whites rate him positively, but only 37 percent of non-whites believe he is doing an excellent or good job.

More importantly, his negative ratings are high among non-whites and growing among voters overall. Among non-whites, 26 percent give him a poor rating and 24 percent rate him as doing only a fair job. With whites, 25 percent rate him only fair and 8 percent think he has done a poor job. Overall, among all registered voters, his poor rating has risen from 4 percent to 10 percent and his only fair rating from 22 to 25 percent.

In his handling of the Young case and its subsequent aftermath, Whitehouse has made several key mistakes. First, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, he was criticized for not quickly and in a high-profile setting expressing his sympathy for the family.

Second, although he met with Young's father, a high-ranking Providence police officer right after the shooting, he did not meet with Young's mother during the first few weeks, which led her publicly to criticize him for insensitivity to her plight.

Third, in many of his public statements, he has sought to define his investigation narrowly as a legal, law enforcement matter, thereby leading many members of the community to feel he did not grasp the political and racial aspects of the controversy.

Fourth, for the commission he appointed to investigate broader aspects of the case, he named several members of the minority community to the commission, but most commission members had close ties to the police community. Given the deep mistrust between the minority community and police (especially in the Providence area), the domination by law enforcement officers created the impression the commission was stacked in favor of the police.

It remains to be seen how the public will react to Whitehouse's handling of the case in the long-run. The not guilty verdicts in the New York City police shooting of Amadou Diallo is sure to keep the Providence controversy in the news and probably will expand the scope of the case to national audiences. If the local case goes national, as it is likely to do, Whitehouse will be plagued by months of public criticism over his handling of the tragedy.