PROVIDENCE — The Providence External Review Authority, or PERA, was created after an off-duty Black police officer was killed by two white police officers 20 years ago, overcoming court challenges and upheaval in its fight to establish civilian oversight of the Providence police.
But now, as urgent calls for racial justice and police reform ring through Rhode Island and around the country, the state’s only civilian review authority is struggling internally with a leader whose actions may have jeopardized its mission.
In an emergency meeting Monday night, PERA board members voted 6 to 3 to remove its executive director, Jose Batista, who defied the board, the police, and the attorney general’s office last week to release video footage from a pending criminal case against an officer.
The bystander and police body camera videos show Sergeant Joseph Hanley grinding his knee into a handcuffed man’s head on the pavement, kicking him, and stepping onto his legs during an arrest on April 19. Misdemeanor charges were dropped against the man, who reached a $50,000 settlement with the city. Hanley was charged with simple assault in May.
The board voted against releasing the video in August, to avoid jeopardizing the criminal case against Hanley. But Batista offered the footage to the media last week anyway, saying he wants “transparency” and for PERA to be “at the table” during criminal investigations of police officers.
Civilian review boards do not have authority in criminal investigations, according to Liana Perez, the director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, and involving PERA in that capacity would be highly unusual. The Providence city ordinance gives PERA oversight in internal investigations, not criminal ones.
“Usually, you don’t compromise a criminal investigation during an administrative investigation. You shouldn’t cross the line,” Perez said.
The Providence External Review Authority is the only civilian oversight board in Rhode Island. It was proposed after the death of Sergeant Cornel Young Jr., a Black officer who was off-duty when he was fatally shot by two white officers in January 2000, and established by the City Council in 2002.
It is responsible for community outreach, reviewing police policies and training procedures, and making recommendations for reallocation of funds. It is empowered by the mayor and City Council to investigate complaints of police misconduct and, when necessary, make recommendations to the police chief for disciplinary action — a faster and less-intimidating way to resolve complaints than having the public deal with the Police Department’s Internal Affairs division.
The state Supreme Court upheld PERA’s authority in 2008, but the group was inactive until 2018, when the city brought together a new nine-member board, which hired Batista as executive director.
Board member Deborah Wray, a longtime community activist in Providence, said there was hope that the civilian review authority would finally find its footing.
This, Wray said, was supposed to be PERA’s “fresh start.” Now, there’s concern that Batista’s actions threaten PERA’s mission of conducting fair and impartial oversight of the police.
Batista, 32, had previously worked as a public defender and a prosecutor for the city of Pawtucket. A graduate of Roger Williams University School of Law, he was just elected to represent District 12 in the state House of Representatives, and, has also been on the board of College Visions, the city Board of Licenses, and the city’s Ethics Commission. He was given a two-year contract in early 2019, provided that he didn’t continue his law practice or outside employment, to avoid conflicts of interest.
Wray, who was on the hiring committee, said Batista started out well, “but what he said he was capable and knowledgeable of doing, that is not what he has done,” Wray said.
Batista was expected to work on public outreach and review, investigate, and mediate complaints. Instead, he quickly stopped attending Providence police command staff meetings, and meetings with the Providence police union “never got off the ground,” Patrolman Michael Imond, president of the union, said. City records show he brought in outside contractors to do the investigative work, over the objections of the board. According to PERA’s latest biannual report in June, a dozen cases are still waiting for investigation, some well over a year, and another five are waiting for mediation.
“We were asking Batista to be accountable. He was saying he was working on it, but we don’t have information saying what they actually did,” Wray said. The only case they heard about, she said, was the one involving Hanley.
Earlier this year Batista suggested to Attorney General Peter Neronha that he drop charges against Hanley in order to make the videos public. Once the videos had sparked a “public conversation,” Batista said, he proposed that the sergeant be re-charged for the April assault.
Several PERA members were aghast. They wanted the attorney general to increase the charges against the sergeant, not drop them.
“How would it help the general public to see any sort of violence . . . against any sort of citizen and then not hold the officer accountable by releasing that video?” board member Michael Fontaine, a Providence insurance defense lawyer and former state prosecutor, said at a PERA meeting in September. “That was the whole point of this board . . . to have a second set of eyes to ensure officers are held accountable,”
“I’ve been a prosecutor for years, and I’m not aware of them bringing charges, dropping them, and bringing them back, especially after release of evidence. Ever,” Fontaine added.
Batista told the board — and, later, The Boston Globe — that the proposal was hypothetical.
Wray said she doesn’t believe him. “I think Jose lied,” she said. “He thought he was going to have board members to back him no matter what he’d do. He forgot what our mission is,” she said.
After a moped rider, Jhamal Gonsalves, was critically injured in a crash involving a police officer in October, Batista urged the board to authorize $50,000 for a contractor to investigate the case and pushed for PERA to be directly involved with the criminal investigation, along with the state police, Providence police, attorney general’s office, and the federal Department of Justice.
“This is the moment in time that PERA was created for,” Batista told them. Most of the board members balked, saying they still needed standards and accounting for the work being done.
The Police Department also refused Batista’s demands. “If PERA or PERA’s investigator were embedded in the investigation, it would have an adverse impact on the criminal investigation and the criminal prosecution in many ways,” Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré wrote to Batista on Oct. 28. “The integrity of the criminal investigation is our primary goal.”
Paré offered PERA daily briefings and said the department would comply with PERA’s requests when it became an internal investigation. A pretrial motion and hearing are scheduled for Nov. 24, and the commissioner said the police were going to release the videos when the case was adjudicated.
Batista told the Globe that wasn’t good enough. He decided to release the Hanley videos on his own to make a point, he told the Globe, and said it’s “a misrepresentation to say I can’t be trusted with sensitive information.”
“The Hanley case was such a high profile case, and we got involved after the fact,” Batista said. “If we want to do our job of civilian oversight, we need to have no daylight between what the police know and what we know.”
But his actions may prevent PERA from doing its work.
“I want to say I hope it doesn’t stop the police from cooperating the way they are supposed to,” Wray said. “I hope and pray that Commissioner Paré, the captains and majors, will take this and understand this is (Batista’s) feelings coming out — and not the board.”