PROVIDENCE — It’s been going on for several years now: Dozens of ATV, dirt bike, and moped riders roaring through the city on weekends, weaving in and around traffic, speeding, disturbing the quiet of residential neighborhoods.
It’s gotten so bad that earlier this month, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza joined police to put on a dramatic public display of crushing confiscated ATVs and dirt bikes. It had two goals: Reassure residents who have complained bitterly about the intimidating practice, and let riders know that if they get caught, their bikes will be destroyed – and they will be arrested.
On Sunday, the largest group yet – estimated at 300 or more dirt bikes and mopeds – buzzed through various parts of Providence and surrounding cities. But this time, the joyrides ended in tragedy: A 24-year-old man on a moped crashed while being followed by a police cruiser, flipped over his handlebars, and slammed to the ground.
The rider, Jhamal Gonsalves of Middletown, was in critical condition at Rhode Island Hospital on Monday, police said.
Almost immediately, bystanders started yelling that the police car had hit the moped from behind, causing the accident. A cell phone video of the episode shows the cruiser following the small, black moped closely on Elmwood Avenue as it swerves around another cruiser and turns onto Bissell Street.
Amid the sound of squealing tires and a loud crash, the camera pans away for a split second before capturing the grim sight of the moped driver hurtling onto the sidewalk – missing the crucial second or two that may have shown whether the police car hit the moped.
And while the Providence police vowed a thorough investigation involving the attorney general’s office and the State Police, the incident has inflamed already volatile racial tensions over policing.
Patrolman Kyle Endres, a 6-year member of the police force who was driving the cruiser, was assigned to desk duty as the police department conducts an investigation that is expected to take two weeks to complete.
Mark Gonsalves Sr., the father of the moped driver, posted an update on Facebook late Sunday, saying his son was unconscious when he arrived at Rhode Island Hospital, and doctors performed a procedure to relieve pressure on his son’s brain.
“If anyone witnessed what happened, please voice record what you remember or write it down to keep records in case that info is needed in the future,” Gonsalves wrote. “Most importantly, please pray for him.”
Friends of Gonsalves said he is a professional motocross driver who would not have lost control of his moped unless a vehicle hit him from behind.
By Monday, the Party for Socialism & Liberation and other groups were planning an event at 6 p.m. Tuesday titled “Justice for Jhamal Gonsalves! Stop Racist Police Terror!”
“Jhamal Gonsalves is currently in a coma because a Providence police officer deliberately hit his motor scooter with a police cruiser,” the announcement states, calling for an independent investigation, criminal charges, and reparations for his family.
But Police Chief Hugh T. Clements Jr. said the investigation has not yet determined whether the police cruiser hit the moped.
“I urge everyone not to rush to judgment,” Clements said. “This will be broken down frame by frame, minute by minute.”
The Providence police are looking for any additional video of the incident and any witnesses.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré said the city will conduct “a thorough and complete investigation.” He said, “Until we get those facts, it’s too early to make a determination about what exactly happened.”
Paré said police responded to reports of groups of mopeds, scooters, and ATVs roving around the city Sunday. At one point, a group of 250 to 300 was riding around India Point Park, and at other points, groups headed into Johnston, Pawtucket, East Providence, and other communities, he said. About 25 police cars were involved at various points, he said.
The city has been dealing with similar groups for several years. In 2017, the City Council passed a law allowing the police to seize and destroy dirt bikes and ATVs operating illegally in the city.
“It’s a huge public safety concern,” Paré said. “We have had kids hit and riders seriously injured. It creates dangerous conditions when they ride in packs, and these are mostly illegal vehicles.”
On Oct. 9, Elorza and Paré made a public display of crushing illegal dirt bikes and ATVs that the city has confiscated over the past three years. He estimated that the city has crushed 125 dirt bikes and ATVs in all.
But it’s a difficult problem to police, Paré said.
“It’s a challenge to combat because they are fast and they can flee quickly in places that patrol cars cannot go,” he said. “We tried to do the best we can to disrupt them, but with that many, you are trying to take one off at a time in a safe way.”
Clements said dirt bikes and ATVs pose a major challenge not only for the Providence police, but for police departments around the state and the country.
“It is a significant challenge with no magic solution,” he said. “These vehicles operate in a completely unsafe manner – reckless, left of center, maneuvering into oncoming traffic, no regard for other’s safety, including going through traffic lights, stop signs.”
Clements said the police try to monitor ATVs and dirt bikes from a distance, and “escort them" off main streets and hopefully out of the city.
Providence police are allowed to pursue vehicles under certain circumstances, he said.
For example, the police department policy says officer may pursue “a motor vehicle operator who has committed flagrant moving motor vehicle violations which have endangered the lives and safety of others...”
In this case, Clements said the police were following a group of moped and dirt bike riders down Elmwood Avenue and out of the city when the crash occurred at about 6 p.m. Sunday.
Clements said the type of bike that Gonsalves was riding is allowed on city streets, but that particular 50cc moped was not registered and no license plates, he said. Gonsalves was wearing a helmet, he said.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha attended a Monday afternoon news conference along with Elorza, Pare, and Clements, saying his office will follow existing protocols for investigating cases in which civilians are seriously injured or killed during interactions with the police.
"This is a protocol which exists for this purpose – to bring other sets of eyes to an incident involving one particular police department, so that hopefully the public will have confidence in those other sets of eyes,” Neronha said.
The attorney general’s office and the State Police will “take a significant role” in the investigation, Neronha said. He said he understands the public’s desire to get answers quickly, but he said authorities “have to be sure we are getting it right.”
Neronha said that during investigations of this type, there are three potential outcomes: no action, administrative ramifications for the officer involved, or criminal ramifications, and he noted that his office only evaluates whether criminal conduct has occurred.
Organizers of Sunday’s “ride out” issued a statement, saying, “We are writing to check the racist, criminalizing narrative that has already been pushed by police and media that Jhamal was part of a dangerous mob.”
Gonsalves is a painter who makes custom scooters, the group said.
“He is a young man who is looked up to by teenage riders and very well respected by all in our community,” it said. “He is a professional, sponsored motocross rider who can jump 20 feet in the air on a bike. His control of a scooter is second to none; he has the balance and control of a ballerina. Jhamal would not have been thrown off his bike if not for the police vehicle that aggressively hit him.”
Black Lives Matter Rhode Island issued a statement about the incident on Monday, saying, “This is exactly why we don’t need more cops in our community. More cops equates to more violence perpetrated on people of color. We need police reform.”
Police officers need better training in areas de-escalation tactics and mental health evaluations, the group said.
“There’s a man in critical condition and in a coma due to an overzealous and under-trained police officer,” Black Lives Matter Rhode Island said. “This is a behavioral pattern that is far too common. If this had been a white kid, there would be a collective furor aimed directly at such sloppy and reckless policing.”
When asked if there is racial element of cracking down on dirt bikes, Elorza said city officials gets lots of calls about the ATVs and dirt bikes driving “recklessly” around the city, and the police must step in if laws are being violated.
“I know that it’s a tough environment right now, just in general,” Elorza said. “People are skeptical. Many folks simply don’t trust the process, don’t trust the city or the police or another institution.”
He said that is part of why the city reached out to the attorney general’s office, as well as the US Department of Justice, about the investigation.
“If it’s going to help us provide a measure of confidence to the public – that we have a done a thorough, honest investigation – then that only serves to help,” Elorza said.
Providence City Councilman David Salvatore said riders of ATVs and dirt bikes are “passionate about using their vehicles,” and Providence should consider setting aside open spaces for their use, as other cities have done.
But Salvatore said he has heard complaints from constituents who raise public safety concerns when large groups of vehicles roar down residential streets, and he said, “The bottom line is we have to create safe spaces for everyone."