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Scott MacKay Commentary: Fung's Cranston Police Foibles

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Cranston Mayor Alan Fung says he is sorry for police misconduct on his watch. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay assesses the damage to the once...

Cranston Mayor Alan Fung says he is sorry for police misconduct on his watch. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay assesses the damage to the once-promising political career of Republican Fung.

As is often the case in Rhode Island, the mid-summer news drought was interrupted last week by both weather and another sad example of government gone wrong.  One was physical; the other political. Cranston was at the center of both of these storms.

By Wednesday, city workers were still cleaning up streets strewn with fallen trees from Tuesday’s wind-driven thunder storm. And Mayor Fung was trying to resurrect his reputation after a scorching state police probe detailed a dysfunctional city police department and his failure to do much of anything about it.

``I want to apologize, apologize to the residents of Cranston,’’ a contrite Fung said at a news conference. He said he had wished he had ``done some things differently’’ and pledged to fix the failing department, which is under new leadership.

Urban police departments are never easy to oversee. As the state police report noted, law-enforcement in our cozy state always seems to have personnel issues, including palace intrigue and personal rivalries among the top brass. But Cranston’s mess spilled out of the department and into the streets. This is where Fung made a huge mistake.

The police department’s internal problems burst out into the public late in 2013, when police rained parking tickets on citizens in the wards of two city councilors who had voted against a new police union contract. It was later determined that the ticketing was ordered by a police captain who was also serving as the union’s president.

At the time, Fung was running for governor. While he denies this, the report points to the obvious – that he was trying to keep the lid on bad news flowing from the police shop while he fended off a stiff Republican primary challenge from Barrington’s Ken Block. This turned out to be a bad fumble.

It’s one thing to sweep internal police dust-ups under wraps. But once the ticket scam went public, Fung had only one smart political and governing choice. That was to publicly express outrage, apologize to  the  city’s residents and roll the heads of the cops who were responsible down Reservoir Avenue.

This would have boldly shown both Cranston residents and state voters that Fung took the situation seriously. He could have portrayed himself as a leader who tolerates no rogue cops and took decisive action when he discovered the problem. He would have been hit with criticism from political opponents and perhaps a week or so of unfavorable media accounts. But then it would likely have gone away.

Instead, Fung dragged his feet, calling in the state police only after the city council, controlled by Democrats, loudly protested. Fung should have known better; he’s both a lawyer and a former state prosecutor.

As a prosecutor, Fung was obviously knowledgeable about the state police. In a state that has witnessed way too much political corruption and police misconduct over the years, Rhode Island’s state police are held in high regard. They have more credibility than politicians. The report  by Col. Steven O’Donnell was direct and blunt, in stark contrast to Fung’s lawyered-up defense that blamed the state’s laws that protect police officers, the so-called police officer’s bill of rights.

The sad part of all this is that Fung has carved a mostly successful mayoralty. He has stabilized city finances and worked well with the business community to bring new development to Cranston. Fung also has a good story to tell,  in the time-honored Rhode Island tradition,  as the son of immigrants who worked hard and pulled themselves up.

Even though he was outspent, Fung ran a decent campaign for governor, giving Democrat Gina Raimondo  vigorous challenge. He is a fine meet-and-greet politician who handles himself well on the campaign circuit. Fung was viewed as a comer in a beleaguered state Republican Party that for too long hasn’t had candidates who can win statewide elections.

To remain viable, Fung has to turn the page. The police have new leadership in Col. Michael Winquist, a well-regarded former state police officer. Robert Coupe, Fung’s administration director, says he and Winquist talk every day and that the department is much improved.

Fung says he wants to run for reelection next year, so he has to show Cranston voters that they can trust his leadership. Restoring that trust and credibility will prove harder than clearing the trees from roadways and turning the lights back on.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at the `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: Fung's Cranston Police Foibles
Scott MacKay Commentary: Fung's Cranston Police Foibles