ANTHONY ROBERSON WAS ONLY a boy when he perceived that society didn’t expect much from him. He knew that some people saw him, when they saw him at all, as just another Black teenager in a Providence housing project. He was overlooked in school, struggling to concentrate as his friends were murdered in turf wars. He felt lost as the crack cocaine scourge swallowed his neighborhood, the sounds of gunfire echoing on the streets. The low expectations others had for him and his friends made for an ugly message that was impossible to miss.
There was the teacher at Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School, for example, who exploded at Roberson and his classmates, ranting that they were all destined for failure. And then, at Hope High School, the guidance counselor who told him there was no way he would succeed in college, though he could always try trade school.
But ever since he was a teenager, Roberson knew who he wanted to be. He recalls watching police officers patrol the housing projects of Hartford Park, Manton Heights, and Chad Brown, and says he saw something “noble” in their work, and an opportunity to help his community as an officer himself. “You have the capacity to do so much good,” he says, “and there’s no other profession like it, where you have access to the public in such a way that can benefit their lives.”
Defying predictions that he would fail in college, Roberson earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in criminal justice, as well as a doctoral degree in educational leadership. He went on to rack up national recognition and numerous awards for his community policing initiatives during his more than 18 years with the Providence Police Department.
Then in January, at age 43, Roberson was sworn in as the first Black police chief in Central Falls, Rhode Island — becoming only the third Black municipal chief in the state’s history. (He’s also the only police chief in the state with a doctorate.)
Now, as the new chief in Central Falls, a place so much like where he grew up just a few miles away, Roberson wants to lead his police officers in forging relationships with the people they serve. And he wants his officers to be role models for young people, because he knows how just a little bit of guidance, at just the right moment, can change the trajectory of someone’s life.
He knows because it changed his.
IN 1993, A FEW WEEKS after he was told to forget about college, a teenage Roberson poked his head into Steve Raffa’s office at Hope High and said he wanted to be a lawyer.
Raffa, who’d left law to work in education, had just started a school-to-work program for at-risk ninth- and 10th-graders in Providence. The program made sure the students went to class every day, stayed out of trouble, and helped them find jobs or internships with employers who could mentor them.
Although Roberson was in 11th grade, Raffa saw his sincerity and let him join. “He came to school every day, and he was a really good kid,” Raffa recalls. “He came from a difficult situation . . . but he’s humble and doesn’t talk about a lot of stuff.”
Raffa connected him with John Barylick, a prominent Providence lawyer who ended up choosing Roberson for an internship in his firm. The teenager was shy, and it was clear that this was his first experience working in an office. But he learned quickly, and thrived in a place where adults cared about seeing him succeed.
“I think people can come across in your life, and what might appear to be those quick encounters are actually life-changing,” Roberson says of his experience with Barylick and Raffa. “I think it was because of [their] genuine and well-intended desire to better someone else’s life.”
In Roberson’s senior year of high school, after his mother moved him and his three siblings to South Providence, he transferred to the Chamber of Commerce Academy, Rhode Island’s first charter school. At graduation, Raffa and Barylick were there to cheer for him.
After the ceremony, Raffa offered to take Roberson anywhere he wanted to go. Roberson wanted to go back to the Hartford housing projects, so the people in his old neighborhood could see what he had accomplished. When he proudly walked through the complex in his cap and gown, Barylick recalls, “People came out of the woodwork to congratulate him.”
Barylick wanted Roberson to go to law school, and even offered to pay his way, but Roberson was set on becoming a police officer. Lawyers could help people in court, he figured, but police officers had the opportunity to make a positive difference even earlier.
“There’s different roles that can lend themselves to bettering society, but there’s no position quite like law enforcement, because you have that direct, on the ground, initial contact with people,” Roberson says. “I’m not saying it’s the be-all, end-all, but you could perhaps guide them in the right direction. It’s something that I feel, and after being in this field for so long, it’s something that I know.”
ROBERSON GRADUATED from the Providence Police Academy in 2002 (Raffa was in the audience at the ceremony again, cheering him on), and joined the department during a time of great upheaval in the city, as well as turmoil in the force.
His badge was pinned on in August 2002 by Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., who in a few months would be sent to federal prison for his role in a citywide corruption scheme that included scandals at the Police Department.
Meanwhile, it had been a little over 2½ years since two white Providence officers had mistakenly shot and killed a Black fellow officer, Cornel Young Jr., who was off-duty and trying to help them break up a fight. They didn’t recognize Young out of uniform. That shooting ignited furious demonstrations against police brutality, demands for racial justice, and scrutiny from federal authorities and local commissions. It also drove a deeper wedge between the largely white police force and the diverse citizenry of the city it served.
A few months after Roberson joined the department, it was heading for an overhaul. The new mayor (and future US representative) David N. Cicilline brought in a new chief to root out corruption and remake the 400-plus member department into one centered on community policing, which involves building relationships with civilians.
The new chief, Colonel Dean M. Esserman, was Ivy League educated, a former lawyer, and had led police forces in New York and Connecticut. He had never been a street cop, but had innovative ideas about law enforcement — and knew how to access millions of dollars in federal funds and grants.
Esserman invited community partners, social service organizations, schools, faith leaders, and other law enforcement agencies to work alongside the Providence police. He introduced less-lethal weapons and encouraged de-escalation training. The department developed its first policy on dealing with people who have mental illnesses or are emotionally disturbed.
Under Esserman’s guidance, the police commanders also divided the city into nine districts. Lieutenants would be assigned to each area with their own complement of officers mandated to get to know the people in their community.
One day, Hugh T. Clements Jr., then a new lieutenant, was paired with Roberson on a walking post outside Providence Place mall. On the face of it, the white veteran officer from a middle-class family and the Black rookie from the projects should have had little in common. But they had the same even-tempered, empathic personalities, and both loved being cops.
Clements, who would eventually succeed Esserman as chief, gave Roberson the same advice he gave all the new officers: He should further his education. Clements himself was earning a master’s degree in criminal justice, a city-compensated benefit in the union contract, and urged Roberson to do the same.
In 2003, Clements also recruited Roberson to work for him. The lieutenant was going to be in charge of District 5, Olneyville-Silver Lake-Hartford, an area struggling with street gangs, drug dealing, domestic violence, and poverty. The new substation was dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Steven Shaw, who’d been murdered by a suspect in the neighborhood a decade earlier.
Roberson was assigned to “51 car,” the busiest post in Rhode Island’s highest-crime district. It was, in fact, his own neighborhood — the place where he grew up, where he’d gone to school, where his old friends still lived.
Roberson had come full circle.
Although the dispatch radio was always crackling, Chief Esserman expected all officers, regardless of rank, to make time to meet the people they were serving. So, Roberson went to schools and spoke to students about his career. He walked through the neighborhoods and introduced himself to business owners. He met the activists and organizers who were seeking to improve their communities, and the residents who wanted to be safe but were wary of police.
This was community policing at its core, and Roberson loved it. “That’s how you created relationships,” he says today. “The problem-solving part is so huge, and you build the public trust. As a result of doing that, the community has more confidence in you.” For the next 18 years, even when he worked in administration, then became a detective, and eventually a sergeant, he found that working with the community made him better at his job.
Roberson became a school resource officer at Perry Middle School, where he’d been a student. The school “had a lot of challenges,” recalls Jeremy Chiappetta, who was then an assistant principal. “There was a lot of trauma in that community, a lot of poverty, and at the time there was a lot of recruitment of kids into bad lifestyles.”
Part of Roberson’s job was to work with administrators and the families of children who were having problems. Chiappetta says the young officer was a caring and empathetic role model, and gifted in de-escalating situations. “One of the most important things that I saw Tony do really well was engage with the families in a proactive and positive way, as opposed to a punitive way,” Chiappetta says. “They can be challenging moments, and Tony was there to help parents support their children: How do you atone? How do you repair the community? How do you apologize and share that you learned your lesson?”
Roberson also didn’t shy away from facing critics of the police. Even with the positive changes, the department had to overcome years of mistrust from people of color.
In December 2014, not long after Eric Garner was killed by police in New York City and Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, Roberson went to a community forum on racism and state violence. The only police officer there, he was in plainclothes and didn’t attract attention as he listened. But as one speaker after another said it was futile to try and change the police system, he felt compelled to speak up. “A system is going to do what a system is going to do,” he told the crowd, “until we change it.”
Roberson went on to tell the group his story of growing up in housing projects and deciding to focus on his schooling. He said he was about to get his doctorate in education. But the crowd’s applause was interrupted with gasps when he added that he was also a detective in the Providence Police Department.
As the crowd murmured, Roberson explained that he believed in working to make a difference from within. “We’ve got to break that mind-set that all police are bad,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can to make a difference for my people.”
ROBERSON ALWAYS KNEW there was more to bridging the divide between police and residents than attending forums and patrolling the streets. If he was really going to reach the children in his old neighborhood, he believed they would need positive role models — like Steve Raffa and John Barylick had been for him.
Roberson started several programs that proved popular, including regular “Shop with a Cop” events, in which 20 to 30 Providence students are paired with police officers to go on a shopping spree at Walmart with gift cards funded by grants and money from a raffle. More than 200 officers have volunteered so far. “It’s the interaction that occurs between the police and the kids and their families — that’s the goal,” Roberson says. “It’s a positive interaction. It lends itself to humanizing each other, and the uniform just melts away.”
Another project was “The Handshake Initiative,” where men from a variety of professions — including state troopers, firefighters, and Providence police officers — greet students at the elementary and middle schools with handshakes, high-fives, and words of encouragement. “I wanted young boys who may be experiencing street crime to see that there are positive role models who look like them,” Roberson says.
Roberson’s “Leading Ladies Initiative” introduced teenage girls to successful women, giving them an opportunity to see who they could grow up to be (one role model he recruited was L. Maria Rivera, who went on to become mayor of Central Falls).
“I know women have obstacles that they have to overcome in the society that, as a man, I don’t have to contend with,” Roberson says. He points to his mother, who went to community college and then the University of Rhode Island — taking one class at a time while raising her four kids — until she earned her degree and became a teacher. “She played a huge role in my value system and my work ethic,” Roberson says.
Following his mother’s lead, and Clements’ encouragement, Roberson furthered his own education in his spare time. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bellevue University, a master’s in criminal justice from Boston University, and a post-master’s certificate and a doctorate in education from Liberty University. He also earned a number of leadership certificates from Roger Williams University, Cornell University, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and others.
Though becoming a police officer still doesn’t require more than a high school diploma, Roberson believes higher education is essential for doing the job well. “As a law enforcement officer, you go into a variety of situations, all the way from homicides to minor disturbances. When you go in there with education, you go in there with more solutions available to you,” he says. “Like we say, we have the pepper spray, the cuffs and all that — those are just tools, right? Education is another tool, and arguably the most important tool that you can use.”
Central Falls is a city of 19,000 people living in a little over 1 square mile. There are congested streets lined with three-deckers and shops, schools, parks, and a prison. It has been home to immigrants for generations, and today more than 37 percent of its residents hail from other countries. It also has some of the same challenges, at a smaller scale, as nearby Providence: financial struggles and pockets of deep poverty, teenagers and young men who veer into gang activity and crime.
The Central Falls police station sits in the heart of the city. Its 39 officers have worked closely with the Providence force for years, sharing intelligence, working on task forces, and setting up gun buybacks. “We are a small family,” says Detective Jeffrey Araujo, vice president of the Central Falls police union. “In Providence, you have a bunch of families, but here we are all stuck together, and all in sync, with the problems and camaraderie. We’re close-knit.”
L. Maria Rivera, who was president of the City Council when she was elected mayor in November 2020, had promised during her campaign to improve the social and racial injustices in Central Falls and advocate for immigrants. That meant also taking a hard look at the relationship between the Central Falls police and the community.
“We live in a large immigrant community that is very, very afraid of the police,” Rivera says. “I would say that the majority of this population has problems trusting because of their [immigration] status.” She wants citizens to feel comfortable with the police who serve them.
Rivera liked the city’s prior police chief, Daniel Barzykowski, who had grown up in Central Falls and worked at the department there for 21 years. She’d praised him when he became chief in 2019, and when she decided to run for mayor, she wasn’t thinking about bringing in anyone new to lead the department. But as she got to know more about Roberson, she found that his ideas about policing were in line with her own.
“He understands the needs of the community. He can relate to a lot of the needs of the community,” Rivera says. “I’ve seen him have conversations with residents, and he just has this approach about him when he speaks to residents, he listens before making decisions — he’s listening to what their real needs are.”
When she was elected, Rivera made history as the first Latina mayor in Rhode Island. Then she made history in Central Falls by appointing the city’s first Black police chief, bringing him in at an $87,000 annual salary, and elevating the Providence sergeant through the ranks to colonel in a single leap.
When she broke the news, Rivera received a number of e-mails and calls from Roberson’s colleagues in Providence, she says, “just letting me know, ‘Great choice. He’s a great man.’”
But then came the backlash.
THERE CAN ONLY be one police chief in a city, and in appointing Roberson, Mayor-elect Rivera would be dismissing Barzykowsi. Some people condemned her decision.
About 40 miles away, a police officer in Middletown, Rhode Island, took to Facebook. “I’m speaking out for those who won’t speak for themselves for fear of retribution because after all, that’s the Rhode Island way,” wrote Lieutenant Dave Bissonnette. In a long rant, Bissonnette went on to attack the newly elected mayor and sneer at Roberson, calling him unqualified for jumping rank from sergeant to chief, despite his education and programs in the community. “Let’s call this what it is: this is a political appointment. Nothing more,” he wrote. “She’s hiring her friend and trying to sell it as diversity.”
Bissonnette, who added that he was a friend of Barzykowski, posted side-by-side photos of Roberson and Barzykowski, inviting comparison: the Black man from Providence in a suit, the white man from Central Falls in his chief’s uniform. Which one deserved to be chief? Which one really belonged?
Bissonnette’s post was shared more than a thousand times, garnering hundreds of comments, most from people apparently white and living outside of Central Falls. Some were plainly racist, calling Roberson’s appointment “affirmative action,” “reverse discrimination,” and deploring that a Black man had taken a job from a white man. “Replacing a white man with someone of a different race or the same race as her, could be a race discrimination lawsuit,” one woman opined. Bissonnette responded he was sure that her concerns were being looked into. Today, Bissonnette says he can’t speak for the people who commented on his post, but stands by what he wrote.
The few who pushed back on the Facebook post looked to be mostly people of color. “This is politics,” wrote one man. “I love the changing landscape now that the patriarchy that’s controlled all aspects of government is collapsing. Government and associated positions will soon reflect the populations they serve. It all starts locally. But as we’ve seen it’s spread nationally and even now congress is looking a whole lot different. Give us more women, and give us more minorities. This isn’t really about qualifications. They’re all qualified. This is about representation.”
The Central Falls police union also criticized Rivera’s process to appoint Roberson, as well as his jump in rank. The union’s president, Lieutenant John Carroll, told WJAR-TV that they wanted the mayor-elect to reconsider. “Maybe look at it and say, ‘If I’m going to name a replacement, name someone that has the experience to run this police department into the next decade,’” he said. (Rivera’s appointment had precedent: Donald L. Colbert, who became the state’s first Black police chief in 1964, and Anthony Silva, now chief of staff to Governor Dan McKee, had both been sergeants when they were named police chiefs.)
Amid the criticism, Rivera expressed confidence in Roberson and his experience. Having a person of color in that position “also speaks for itself with everything happening in our country,” she says. “If you ask me, he’s overqualified.”
For Black officers like Providence Sergeant Raymond Hull, Roberson being named chief felt like a personal win. Even with efforts to diversify police departments in Rhode Island over the years, few people of color have made it to the top ranks. Hull himself saw few opportunities for Black officers during his 34 years in the department, but says, “This is a new day.”
Hull, who had at one point supervised Roberson, says Roberson earned his position as chief, and credits the mayor for taking a “big bold step” in giving him the opportunity. “I know he’s capable of running a department and understanding people,” Hull says. “He’s done things in Providence to bring the community together — he did it.”
Despite the drama on social media, Roberson found a welcome at the Central Falls Police Department when he was sworn in on January 4. It was Barzykowski’s last day, but the outgoing chief stayed to speak with him and show him around the station. “He was a gentleman,” Roberson says.
Outside, Barzykowski gave his last call over the police radio, urging everyone in the department to work together. “The changes we’re making need to continue. We’ve got the [Fraternal Order of Police] and their leadership standing right next to Black Lives Matter. That’s change,” he said. “And if I had anything to do with it, I’m proud. Please continue working together to build social justice and racial equity for everyone.”
Since that first day, Roberson has been meeting one-on-one with officers and civilian employees. “I want to get to know them and listen at the same time,” he says. “I believe when it pertains to leadership, we all work together and I’m not one to shy away from ideas from others.”
He also wants the officers to be open to ideas from people outside the department, even those they may not believe they have anything in common with. In April, for instance, Roberson invited the Providence-based Nonviolence Institute to train officers in the principles and skills of nonviolence. Central Falls would be the first police department to have all of its officers trained by the group.
Police “deal with the community like we deal with the community,” says Cedric Huntley, the executive director of the Nonviolence Institute. “In nonviolence [work], we don’t carry weapons — we carry principles and values and connect with the community, and they can do it in their role.”
As the training began, a senior nonviolence facilitator named Salomao “Sal” Monteiro Jr. spoke about the worst mistake he ever made. He and a friend had carjacked a man in Pawtucket in 1992, but his friend then shot the man, leaving him to die while his baby daughter was in the back seat.
After serving his prison sentence, Monteiro decided to dedicate his life to peace. He told the officers that he would regret his involvement that day for the rest of his life.
That’s when Officer Robert Matook spoke up, saying he had responded to the scene that night, back when he was on the Pawtucket force. The two men coming face-to-face after 29 years launched a powerful, emotional discussion between the nonviolence trainers and the Central Falls officers.
By the end of the 40-hour training, Matook says he came away with respect for the work Monteiro and others at the Nonviolence Institute are doing. “That one day that he made his mistake, he lives with for the rest of his life,” Matook says of the conversation, noting that Monteiro’s “passion is to prevent this from ever happening again.”
“I said, ‘It’s a common goal between us and you to prevent this from happening,’” Matook adds. " ‘If you save one person from committing an act of violence, I commend you.’ "
To Roberson, conversations of this type need to take place constantly between officers and their communities, as part of a broader culture shift in policing. “The police function of arresting and investigating cases — that’s a cornerstone of the profession,” he says. “But relationship building and community policing has to be at the same level. That has to be as normalized as investigating a case.”
Police union leaders had initially voiced skepticism of Roberson’s appointment. Now, says vice president Araujo, “We are very, very happy.” He says the officers appreciate the open communication with the new chief and his efforts to get to know them, and that they’re on board with his ideas to expand community policing department-wide. “We’ve been of the mind-set of taking the extra step,” Araujo says. “It’s not going to be a big challenge.”
In the months ahead, Roberson will be working with the attorney general’s office to obtain body cameras, as well as seeking a grant to buy new police cruisers. And he expects to roll out his top-down community policing plan. “I plan to make it part of the culture,” he says. “I want our administrative, our investigative, our uniformed officers to actually know the business owners and interact with them on a regular basis throughout the course of their day when time’s available.”
Roberson is holding himself to the same standard. On an afternoon in February, the new mayor and the new chief walked together on Broad Street, ducking into shops, restaurants, and bakeries.
As they walked to Tony’s Shoe Service, Roberson — whose nickname is Tony — took note of the sign over the door. “That’s a good name,” he joked, as they entered a shop that smelled of warm leather and polish.
Owner Abraham Hernandez emerged from the back, walking past walls filled with shoes and boots and saddles. Seeing Roberson in his chief’s uniform, Hernandez did a double take, then clapped his hands, his eyes sparkling above his mask patterned with tiny American flags.
The police chief was a man of color. Just like him.
He’d waited so long to see this, he said.