Tonya Harris ousted during 2005 cheating scandal, to lead agency aiding victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
WARWICK, R.I. — A former Providence police officer who was forced out of the department in a promotions cheating scandal has been appointed the new executive director at the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Although she was implicated in investigations by the FBI and the Police Department, Tonya Harris maintained that she didn’t cheat, and she didn’t admit wrongdoing in the settlement with the city.
In an announcement Friday, the coalition touted Harris’ nearly 20 years as a police officer. The coalition works closely with police departments throughout the state, including Providence, and with law enforcement advocates who work with the police in aiding victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Harris is being appointed effective Oct. 29 to replace Deborah DeBare, who served as executive director for 22 years and is now senior deputy director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Harris was a detective sergeant when she was fired by then-Providence Police Chief Dean M. Esserman in 2005 for allegedly cheating on a promotional test. She won reinstatement to her job in a settlement of a lawsuit against the city, on the condition that she retire. The city Board of Retirement approved her pension in 2007.
The promotions scandal, uncovered during the federal corruption investigation against then-Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., had rocked the Providence Police Department and left a deep well of bitterness against officers who were accused of cheating to get ahead. Other officers were disciplined, but only Harris was fired.
The coalition’s board of directors was aware of Harris’ history at the Police Department, said communications director Kate Porter, but “we looked into it and decided it was not going to impact us going forward.”
She referred further questions to the directors.
Harris is currently the executive director at the Center for Mediation & Collaboration RI, which provides Rhode Islanders with alternative dispute resolution. She has also served on the board of directors at the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, where she helped educate and advocate against domestic violence.
“I believe that diversity is our strength and that being kind and patient with each other are essential to creating a culture of respect,” Harris said in the coalition’s statement announcing her appointment. “I look forward to collaborating with the individuals, agencies, and community and national partners that are working to end domestic violence in Rhode Island and beyond.”
Diversity was an issue in the Police Department in the 1990s when Harris, the president of the Rhode Island Minority Police Association, joined other officers in filing a suit against the city alleging discrimination in departmental promotions after she failed to finished in the top 10 in the 1994 sergeant’s exam.
While the suit was pending, Cianci put Harris in charge of minority recruitment. The disciplinary panel that recommended firing Harris determined that then-Chief Urbano Prignano Jr. gave Harris the source sheet for the 1996 sergeant’s exam -- which she passed -- because, “according to Harris, it behooved Prignano to keep her happy.”
The panel found that Harris repeatedly lied under oath during previous internal investigations and to a grand jury when questioned about the testing scandal. However, a Superior Court judge overturned Harris’ firing because the hearing relied on testimony from Prignano, whom the judge called “a known liar.”
That led the city to seek a settlement with Harris.