AG to review police actions; probe says fireman not profiled

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Police officers who cause serious injuries or face complaints of excessive force will now be subject to investigation by Rhode Island’s attorney general, the office said Wednesday.

Attorney General Peter Neronha’s announcement came as investigators say police did not racially profile a black Providence firefighter when they pulled their guns on him outside his own fire station — a conclusion the city firefighters’ union is disputing.

The new rules issued by Neronha require police to report any use of force that results in serious injury to any person, and any allegation of excessive force that’s backed up by video or other evidence. It’s an expansion of previous rules that required state investigations when police use deadly force or when someone dies in police custody.

Authorities had been reviewing the rules “even before the tragic events of the last month,” Neronha said in a statement. But the Democrat said the death of George Floyd and the wave of ensuing protests made the update “all the more urgent.”

“Our collective goal is to identify, and hold accountable, those officers who use excessive force before it results in death, as happened in the case of George Floyd,” he said.

Under the rules, police must immediately report cases to the attorney general’s office for review. The office will investigate and decide whether criminal charges should be filed or if cases should go before a grand jury.

The Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association said it supports the change.

“Having an added layer of oversight will help to ensure transparency and will help in the effort to continue to build trust with our residents and those that we are sworn to serve,” said Sidney Wordell, the group’s executive director.

The new rules say it’s critical for the public to know that, when force is used, it’s reasonable and lawful.

“The Attorney General and those in law enforcement have a responsibility to build community trust,” Neronha said. “A critical component of building that trust is to hold those officers who ignore their training, best practices, use of force policies and the law accountable.”

The rules had last been updated in 2007.

Meanwhile, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said an internal investigation determined the two officers involved in the confrontation — one white, one black — did not act inappropriately in ther interactions with a black firefighter as they conducted a search for a suspect in an armed robbery.

Paré said the white officer would be disciplined, however, for failing to turn on his body camera during the June 3 encounter.

Firefighter Terrell Paci said he was racially profiled and feared for his life when the officers approached as he sat, dressed in his uniform, in the car of a friend who was dropping off food at the firehouse where he works.

“I was like, ‘I’m a firefighter, I’m one of you — don’t shoot,’ and they still kept approaching the vehicle with guns drawn,” Paci, 23, said while choking back tears in a televised interview earlier this month.

Mayor Jorge Elorza called Paci’s account “deeply disturbing” and publicly apologized. But Paré defended the officers’ actions and said the firefighter “happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Paci could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Paci’s union, Providence Fire Fighters IAFF Local 799, said it stood by his claims and disputed the idea that he wasn’t racially profiled.

“If it were me, would they have done that to me?” said union head Derek Silva, who is white.