On April 19, Providence Police Sergeant Joseph Hanley and two other officers approached a parked car and forcibly pulled Rishod Gore from the passenger seat. They put him on the ground, facedown, and handcuffed him. Hanley verbally taunted Gore, and knelt on the back of his neck, punched and kicked his ribs, kicked his head, and walked on the back of his lower legs. 

The other officers present did nothing to intervene, and reported no concerns about Hanley’s use of force. The charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest against Gore were later dropped

This is the scene described in a report released by the Providence External Review Authority in response to questions from The Public’s Radio. The report is based on body camera footage, video recorded by a bystander, and a review of the police department’s own internal investigation.

“In our review we got a chance to see who else was present,” PERA director Jose Batista commented. “Did they follow the procedure? Why did they? Why didn’t they? All those other peripheral questions that you don’t necessarily get from the original reports.”

PERA’s report raises multiple concerns beyond the alleged assault. These include questions of whether the officers had probable cause to arrest Gore, gaps in the body camera footage, and a lack of follow up by the police department as to why the other officers on the scene failed to intervene in Hanley’s use of force.

The misconduct of Sgt. Hanley is appalling enough. But the fact that other officers were on the scene and did nothing and mentioned nothing demonstrates how hollow so many policies that supposedly protect people are,” commented Steven Brown, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. 

PERA is recommending that the city strengthen enforcement of policies on body camera use, duty to report, and use of force. And it’s recommending that the city mandate that officers intervene to stop misconduct by a fellow officer. 

PERA’s report also questioned whether the misdemeanor charge of simple assault, currently pending in a state District Court case, is adequate. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office stood by the decision.

***

The reason why PERA exists is to provide the civilian perspective,” Batista said. “There’s clearly a whole separate set of rules and laws that apply to police officers. And sometimes -- as is the case with any government department -- the ship can float too far away from the dock.” 

PERA’s role, Batista said, is to keep the ship close to the dock. In other words, to hold the police department accountable to the people it serves.  

But a previous iteration of the group, created in 2002, failed to achieve this mandate. The board was disbanded after years of turnover, with little to show for its effort. 

Since PERA was re-established in 2018, it has again struggled to deliver. Investigations into civilian complaints of police misconduct have dragged on without resolution, bogged down by trouble accessing police department records. And the board spent much of its September meeting critiquing Batista for poor communication and lack of organization and follow-through. Batista countered that, as PERA’s only staff member, he’s up against a mountain of paperwork.  

As protests across the country put a spotlight on police misconduct, PERA this summer devoted much of its energy to investigating the Hanley incident. On June 1st, the Providence External Review Authority announced it would -- for the first time since being reinstated -- use its power to independently monitor an internal investigation by the police department.

PERA’s investigator, Eugene Monteiro, viewed video footage of the incident in a briefing with police department officials. But the Public Safety Department refused to release the footage to the board as a whole, despite having previously shown it to a civilian advisory group. That prompted the City Council to subpoena the footage on PERA’s behalf in July. 

By late August, Monteiro had completed his report on the case. And at the tail end of an August 25 meeting, without any notice on the public agenda, PERA voted to release the report pending legal review. 

But the report was not released. It was only in response to a request by The Public’s Radio last week that PERA finalized and published its report and sent copies to the police department, the city council, and the mayor’s office. 

***

The report itself is no guarantee of substantive change. PERA can make policy recommendations, but any changes would require action by the city council, mayor, or police department leadership. 

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare declined to comment on the questions raised by the report, citing the ongoing criminal case. And a representative for Mayor Jorge Elorza said his staff needed time to review the proposed policy changes. 

“It brings it back to this systemic issue,” Batista said. “What are we doing to create a system that promotes more transparency, that promotes more fairness, that promotes more justice, that encourages and protects police officers who call out examples of things they don’t think [are] okay?"

PERA has not released video footage of the incident. The Attorney General’s office, which is prosecuting the case, and the Providence Public Safety Department had previously refused to release the footage, citing their desire to protect the integrity of the criminal case. 

“I understand that there may be some extenuating circumstance that could require a delay in releasing body camera footage,” Brown commented. “But at a certain point, it’s intolerable that the public is kept in the dark when serious allegations are made. What is the point of having police wear body cameras if not to promote better accountability and transparency?”