Mack Blackie was on his way to a free meal served in a city park in Woonsocket, R.I. when police arrested him last October.

A man known as “Black” had broken into a couple’s apartment in August and Woonsocket police had charged Mack Blackie – a 35-year-old homeless Liberian immigrant – with breaking and entering, a felony. 

But they had the wrong man. 

Blackie would spend the next month locked up at the Adult Correctional Institutions because he couldn’t afford to pay the $100 on his $1,000 surety bail. The day before Thanksgiving, his caseworker raised the money to bail him out.

It wasn’t until a court hearing in mid-February when the crime’s only witnesses – William Grover, 62, and his wife, Veronica Higbie, 49 – finally got a look at the man police charged with breaking into their apartment. And they knew right away. 

“That’s not him,” Higbie said. “If they had showed me pictures of the young man right here, I would have definitely, like, known that's not him.”

Then, addressing Blackie, she said, “I am so sorry, honey. I am so sorry. This was never you.”

How Mack Blackie could be arrested, not once but twice, and incarcerated for a crime he did not commit raises troubling questions about the operation of the Woonsocket Police Department and its treatment of some of its most vulnerable residents. If Blackie’s arrest and detention had no “probable cause,” experts say, the police’s treatment of him could be deemed a serious violation of his civil rights.

A suspect known as ‘Black’

On the streets of Woonsocket, Mack Blackie is a regular. Since he lost his job working on a delivery truck for a food distributor in 2019, he has been homeless. (His struggle to regain his health and sobriety were chronicled in the series, Chasing The Fix.)

He is five-foot ten inches tall, with a round face, milk-chocolate skin and short dreadlocks that usually poke out from under a baseball or stocking cap. He often wears bright red, making him easy to spot. He speaks with a Liberian accent, punctuating his requests with “please” and “thank you.”

Until this winter, he had no bus pass, so he traveled primarily on foot – going from a city park where he sometimes slept on a bench, to Safe Haven, a local drop-in center for homeless people.

The first time police arrested Blackie for the break-in was in August, outside the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.

A week earlier, Grover called police to report a break-in at the Arnold Street rental apartment that he and his wife share. A disabled former truck driver, Grover told a police officer dispatched to his home that a tall, Black man wearing a hoodie walked through his unlocked apartment looking for his cell phone. After another resident handed the man a phone, the man left, kicking the door on his way out. Grover said that he recognized the man known as “Black,” and that “if he saw ‘Black’ he could identify him,” according to the police report

“I listed Mack Blackie as a possible suspect,’’ the patrol officer said in the report, “only because I believe that is his nickname.” 

The case was forwarded to Detective Timothy M. Hammond. A former Woonsocket firefighter, Hammond, 53, has been on the Woonsocket Police force for 17 years.  

Hammond never scheduled a photo lineup. Nor did he show Grover or Higbie a photo of Mack Blackie to determine whether they were talking about the same person – which, it turned out, they were not.

Nevertheless, the detective obtained a warrant from the court to arrest Blackie based on his affidavit stating that Grover “immediately recognized him [the intruder] as being Mack Blackie.’’ 

The next day, police arrested Blackie while he was talking with friends outside the library. He’d later say that he felt confused, like he was  dreaming. 

“I say warrant for what?’’  

The officer, he said, replied: “When you go to the judge, ask the judge."

The police took Blackie to the police station, photographed him, and held him overnight. When they brought him to state District Court in Providence the next morning for his arraignment, Blackie collapsed on the courtroom floor. 

An ambulance transported Blackie to Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket, where police shackled him to a stretcher. Police temporarily withdrew the arrest warrant when Blackie was admitted to the intensive care unit, where he was treated for severe alcohol withdrawal. After nine days at the hospital he was discharged back to the streets. A friend offered to let him stay on his couch while he recuperated. 

Police arrested the wrong man again

But police resubmitted the warrant for Blackie’s arrest on the breaking and entering charge.

Blackie was six weeks sober and heading to a free lunch at a park in Woonsocket one Sunday in late October when he was arrested again. An officer patrolling downtown noticed Blackie standing at a bus stop. 

He spent the night in a police station cell block; the next day, he was transferred to the ACI. In the prison’s intake unit, he contracted COVID-19 and was kept in an isolation unit for 10 days. After 31 days, Blackie was released from the ACI on bail, with his criminal case still pending. 

Since his release, Blackie has remained sober, landed a part-time job and has been couch surfing while his application for housing is pending. If he had been considered for public housing, a felony charge could have derailed his application. 

Nearly six months after his initial arrest on the felony charge, the only witnesses to the break-in exonerated Blackie.

“I don’t feel like putting somebody who’s innocent in jail,” Higbie said outside the courtroom last month. 

“I was so happy when she said that,’’ Blackie said later. “And also happy like, ‘Oh God, thank you so much.’ ” 

On Monday, the state Attorney General’s office dismissed the charges against Blackie and ordered that the charges be expunged.

“I don't have to worry about anything anymore,’’ Blackie said, “because I'm a free man.’’

But Blackie said he still feels upset about the way Woonsocket Police treated him.

“What they did to me, that wasn't right,’’ he said. “That was wrong.” 

Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates said Wednesday that he was unaware of the case until The Public’s Radio brought it to his attention earlier this week. He said in an email that he has “ordered an internal review of the facts and circumstances of this case from start to finish” and is awaiting those results.

A possible civil rights violation

Blackie’s arrest and incarceration for a crime he did not commit raises concerns about the kind of civil rights violations that advocates say disproportionately impact the city’s disadvantaged people.  

“If you're known by the police out here…you're a target,’’ said Danielle Dextradeur, team manager at Safe Haven, operated by the nonprofit Community Care Alliance. “People who are in need, people who are struggling, people who get government assistance… is automatically a target.’’ She described it as “poverty profiling.’’ 

Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, says the dismissal of the charges against Blackie is a good first step, but it’s not enough.

“He lost a month of his life in prison for no good reason,’’ Brown said. “The police ought to be doing a lot more than simply dropping these charges. They ought to be investigating how this happened in the first place.’’

If Blackie’s civil rights were violated, he said, the Woonsocket Police Department should be “considering taking disciplinary action” against those responsible.

Stephanie Roberts Hartung, a senior staff attorney at the New England Innocence Project, said that arresting and detaining someone “based solely on…a pretty generic nickname…with no verification is troubling.’’ A more in-depth review is needed, she said, but “the facts on their face suggest that this could be the basis of a civil rights lawsuit for wrongful arrest and wrongful detention."

For now, Blackie said, he’s just grateful to have the charges behind him. On Monday morning, as he climbed the steps to the Garrahy Judicial Complex, he made the sign of a cross. Later, as he left the courthouse, he smiled and said that his prayers had been answered. 

Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi