The subpoena requires that Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré release to the Providence External Review Authority body camera footage from an incident in which a police officer is charged with assault. 

Ten of the city’s 15 councilors co-sponsored the resolution, which is the first time the city council has used its subpoena power to help the police oversight board obtain records. 

“[PERA has] the legal right to see this video and it hasn’t been provided to them. It’s something we are a little bit puzzled about, why not?” said Council President Sabina Matos. “We wanted a board to do the work that they have been tasked with doing. And in order to do that work they need to have access to the documents that they request. They need to have access to the video, to the evidence available.” 

Police oversight boards in cities across the country have been forced to fight lengthy legal battles over subpoenas for law enforcement records, said Liana Perez, Director of Operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. 

“The [oversight bodies] that do have subpoena power and use it sometimes are met with challenges, the subpoenas are challenged in court,” explained Perez, who served as Tuscon, Arizona’s Independent Police Auditor for two decades. “So that just drags on and delays the process and the work of the oversight entity.”

PERA executive director Jose Batista says the board had so far been reluctant to subpoena records. 

“This certainly wasn't a path that we wanted to go,” Batista commented. “We've tried for over a year to establish some sort of process based on mutual cooperation. Unfortunately, we have not been met halfway and that's the result. That's why we've elected to go this route.”

In April, Sergeant Joseph Hanley allegedly struck Rishod Gore after Gore was placed in handcuffs, according to a police department statement. Hanley was suspended with pay and the police department and Attorney General’s office decided he should be charged with assault. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has called for Hanley to be fired. 

The incident, coming at a moment of national tension over police brutality, was a call to action for PERA.

“It's such an extraordinary situation in an extraordinary time, post-George Floyd obviously.” Batista said. “I'd be lying to you if that were not if I said to you that we're not a factor.”

Not only is this the first time the oversight board has requested a subpoena from the city council, it’s also the first time the PERA has tried to exercise its power to monitor an internal police department investigation since being re-established in 2018. 

The board’s investigator, Eugene Monteiro, was allowed to see video of the incident. But law enforcement officials stopped short of showing the footage to the oversight board as a whole. 

At a meeting last week, PERA board members demanded Paré explain why the footage was shown to a civilian advisory board assembled by the police department and not to PERA itself.

“This is the board that was created by city law, that was pushed for years by activists,” Batista said. “I don’t understand the justification for putting up a brick wall between ourselves and the information that we’re tasked by law with seeing.”

Police Commissioner Steven Paré said the department was not showing the video in order to avoid creating additional witnesses in the ongoing criminal case. And Patricia Socarras, a spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza, said the city Solicitor and Attorney General advised against voluntarily showing the video.

“We have tried to be very transparent in this police department,” Paré said. “But I cannot release any documents. I cannot release any video.” 

PERA board members and activists with the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM) were not satisfied, and challenged the legal validity of Paré’s argument. 

“What the commissioner is saying is in complete violation of the department’s own policy,” argued Shannah Kurland, an attorney with PrYSM’s Community Defense Project. Kurland cited the police department’s policy that it will release body camera footage of “critical incidents” within 45 days and continued, “The commissioner is trying to invent legal obstacles that don’t exist.”

City councilor Mary Kay Harris, a long-time activist who pushed for PERA’s creation in the early 2000s, said she was disappointed. 

“I feel like the community feels: very frustrated,” Harris said. “I don’t think you’re trying to work with the PERA board.”

Harris is among the councilors who introduced Thursday’s resolution to subpoena Paré.

Batista said he hopes this high-profile case helps PERA gain momentum. 

“My hope is that this case kind of establishes some sort of precedent for how serious we are in terms of doing our work and how committed we are, and hopefully we can build some sort of process where PERA can do its job and the police can do its job,” Batista said. 

The board is waiting on police department documents in order to move forward with 17 civilian complaints.