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Commissioner concludes no racial profiling, but questions search of car containing Black firefighter

Frame from a Providence police body camera video showing an officer approaching a car containing a Black Providence firefighter on June 3.Providence Police Department

PROVIDENCE — Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré on Tuesday said he does not believe two Providence police officers engaged in racial profiling when they drew their guns on a Black firefighter sitting in a car outside a city fire station earlier this month.

But an officer exercised questionable judgment by searching for a weapon in that car even after realizing the firefighter and his female friend were not the two masked Latino men they were seeking as suspects in an armed robbery, Paré said.

And one of the officers will be disciplined for failing to turn on his body camera during the entire encounter, he said.

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“There was not racial profiling because they did not know who was in the car,” Paré said of the officers. “(The firefighter) happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The episode came to light June 5 when Providence firefighter Terrell Paci recounted what happened to him during a WPRI-12 interview amid a protest of some 10,000 people following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Choking back tears, Paci told how he had been sitting in a car outside the fire station earlier that week, in uniform, when two police officers approached him and kept their guns drawn even though Paci told them he was a firefighter.

The president of the Providence Firefighters Union and Mayor Jorge O. Elorza took to social media to support Paci, but the Providence Fraternal Order of Police strongly denied any racial profiling had taken place.

In response, a popular Rhode Island doughnut shop, Allie’s Donuts, announced that it was ending discounts for police and members of the military, prompting protests by veterans.

On Wednesday, Paré held a news conference via Zoom, playing video from the body camera of one of the officers and audio of the 911 calls that led up to the confrontation with Paci.

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Paré said the episode began at about 11:15 p.m. on June 3 when the Providence police received a call reporting that a building on Cranston Street had been broken into or damaged.

Patrol cars responded to the area. Shortly afterward, a man flagged down the police, saying that a red car had pulled up next to him, and two men had gotten out, brandishing a gun and a knife and demanding money. He said he and a friend escaped by running down Cranston Street.

The victim told the police that a red car parked in front of the Messer Street fire station might be the car containing the two suspects, according to the police report.

So Patrolman Matthew Sandorse, who is white, and Patrolman Nathaniel Colicci, who is Black, approached the red car with their guns drawn.

But this was a different red car. Inside this vehicle, Paci was talking to a female friend who had come by to drop off food for him while he was on duty.

Colicci’s body camera footage shows Paci opening the passenger side door of the car, wearing a firefighter uniform and showing one of the officers his two-way radio and a Providence Fire Department cap.

Colicci points a gun at him, telling him, “Stay right there. I didn’t tell you to move. Stay right there!"

Paci identifies himself as a Providence firefighter before asking, “Who are you listening to?”

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Sandorse can be heard telling Paci, “I apologize.”

At that point, Colicci shuts off his body camera. Paré said Sandorse had never turned on his body camera.

Colicci then left the scene while Sandorse asked the woman if he could search her car, according to Paré. He searched and found no weapons, Paré said.

Later, a sergeant stopped by the Messer Street fire station to explain the circumstances to Paci, Paré said.

Paré described it as “an unfortunate interaction” between police officers who were looking for a robbery suspect and an on-duty firefighter who was sitting in a car that fit the description of the suspects’ vehicle.

But Paré acknowledged how traumatic it is for innocent people to have police officers pointing guns at them. “I extended my apology for those circumstances,” he said.

And, Paré said, “I can understand the firefighter’s perception and his belief that he was selected and treated [that way] because of his race."

While the officers had a legal right to search the vehicle in those circumstances, he said, “There could have been better judgment used."

Sandorse won’t be disciplined for searching the car even though it was apparent that these were not the robbery suspects, Paré said. But, he said, “Better discretion could have been used.”

The incident shows the need for more training of young officers, including “more cultural awareness training,” he said.

Sandorse will be disciplined for failing to turn on his body camera during the encounter, Paré said.

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Providence police have been using body cameras for about four years now, and the department does regular audits to ensure that they are being used, he said. “It is important that police officers turn them on,” he said. “There is no excuse for not turning them on.”

The public expects officers to activate their body cameras, Paré said. “And when we don’t, there is doubt of what we say in those encounters," he said.

Paré said it has not been determined what discipline the officer will face for failing to activate the body camera.

He said the suspects in the armed robbery were never apprehended.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.