PROVIDENCE – The embattled executive director of Providence’s civilian police oversight board was terminated Monday for going against the board’s wishes and releasing video footage from a pending criminal case against an officer, despite an outpouring of support from community members who wanted him to keep his job.
The Providence External Review Authority (PERA) voted 6-3 to immediately fire Jose Batista, a Democratic state representative-elect who held the position for nearly two years. The meeting was held virtually on Zoom and live streamed on YouTube.
Board members Machiste Rankin, Phanida Phivilay, Kenneth Cohen, Susan DeRita, Michael Fontaine, and Deborah Wray voted to remove Batista. Chairman Nicholas Figueroa, Elise Swearingen, and Kimberly Dy voted against firing him.
“When you are in a position of power and you are given that power and you have the support of the board, you do not cut the board’s throat,” Wray said during the meeting, echoing the sentiment of several members who said they were upset with the way Batista disobeyed the board.
The board called an emergency meeting to take disciplinary action against Batista because it previously voted to not release video footage from April of Sgt. Joseph Hanley assaulting a handcuffed man. Hanley was charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor, and Mayor Jorge Elorza has called for him to be fired. The criminal case is pending, and Hanley is on leave from the police department.
Board members said their opposition to releasing the video stemmed from legal opinions they received from the city solicitor’s office and the attorney general’s office, which raised questions about whether the release of the footage would jeopardize the criminal case against Hanley.
But community members have rallied behind Batista over the last week, questioning why a police oversight board would take swifter action against its executive director than it has against the department it is supposed to oversee.
“There is no neutrality, people,” Chanda Womack, a community activist, said during the public comment period. “If your role interferes or hinders your ability to serve the community, you need to get off the board.”
Alex Karoff-Hunger, a city resident said, “if there is such a thing as Black lives mattering, brown lives mattering, it must not be held down by the systemic racism that continues to affront the community. Shame on you.”
Batista did not comment during the board meeting, except to say that he would fully cooperate with the board and turn over all equipment and information about current investigations that PERA is conducting. After the meeting, he thanked the community on Twitter.
“Your testimony tonight brought tears to my eyes,” Batista wrote. “I love you. And I will never stop fighting for you.”
Dear Providence community:— Jose F. Batista (@j_f_batista) November 17, 2020
Your testimony tonight brought tears to my eyes. I love you. And I will never stop fighting for you.
Even though six board members ultimately supported Batista’s termination, community members singled out three of them during the meeting: Rankin, a retired officer with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, Fontaine, a well-respected attorney who lives in Barrington, and DeRita, an original member of the PERA board from the early 2000s who is perceived by some as too friendly to the police.
Prior to the vote, Raymond Two Hawks Watson, chief executive officer and founder of the Providence Cultural Equity Initiative, specifically called out Rankin, Fontaine, and DeRita, and warned board members that the public will begin protesting them if they disciplined Batista.
“You keep protecting this nonsense that is going on, and it’s going to get very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable,” Watson said.
Rankin and Fontaine pushed back at the criticism, arguing that they were following the legal advice provided to the board.
“If we are going to hold the police accountable, we can’t act like them,” Rankin said.
It’s unclear when PERA will hire a new executive director, but a city solicitor told the board it will have to advertise the position and begin interviews. The solicitor also said that Batista’s termination was effectively immediately.
Batista’s termination is sure to fuel distrust the community for PERA, the state’s only local police accountability panel. But state Senator-elect Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, urged the public to focus its attention on the police department.
“At no point are we holding the Providence Police Department accountable for the way that they are playing their cards and making sure that this board is now seen as a divisive board and we’re putting the blame on board members or the executive director and never pointing the finger back to where it really belongs, which is the Providence Police Department,” Mack said.