PROVIDENCE — Michaela Perry Gagne saw the lights from the police cruisers reflecting off her bedroom walls the evening of April 19, 2020, so she grabbed her cell phone and went to the window. Directly below her fourth-floor apartment, she said, Perry Gagne saw Providence police officers around a BMW, and heard a woman screaming.
Police were dragging a man out of the car. Perry Gagne started recording “because I’m nosy,” she testified before District Court Judge Brian Goldman on Wednesday, and watched, “horrified,” as one officer appeared to kick, punch, step on the legs of and grind his knee into the man’s head and neck as he lay handcuffed and motionless on the pavement.
“These people are supposed to protect us,” Perry Gagne said.
Though her boyfriend told her to mind her own business, Perry Gagne testified, she took an aunt’s advice and reported what she saw to the Providence Police Department two days later.
Perry Gagne’s complaint was the catalyst for an investigation that led Providence police to suspend Sgt. Joseph Hanley on April 23, 2020, and charge him with simple assault in May 2020. On Wednesday, the first day of Hanley’s trial, Sgt. Paul Zienowicz, who led the internal investigation, testified he was “astonished” when he saw Hanley’s actions on the video.
Hanley was charged as urgent calls for social justice and protests against police brutality swelled across the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd. Demonstrators shouted Hanley’s name as they marched through downtown Providence and outside the Providence Public Safety Complex, where Hanley has worked for 17 years. The Providence External Review Authority subpoenaed videos of the April incident for its own investigation — and then fired its executive director, state Rep. Jose Batista, when he released them to the public without their consent.
Although his office doesn’t typically handle misdemeanor cases, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said his office will prosecute cases involving police misconduct.
The handcuffed man, Rishod Gore, wasn’t injured and misdemeanor charges against him were dismissed; he settled with the city for $50,000.
Though called as a witness on Wednesday, Gore didn’t show up for trial. Prosecutors told the judge that Gore has avoided attempts to subpoena him and has refused to appear. The judge issued a body attachment for Gore Wednesday afternoon, directing authorities to bring him into court.
However, Gore is in the videos taken by Perry Gagne and a body camera worn by Providence Officer Abraham Lugo, who was arresting Gore.
The police had been called about a domestic disturbance on Knight Street that evening and arrested a man, who struggled with officers and ended up being pepper-sprayed.
The man was a friend of Gore’s, who was outside with his girlfriend, and saw the arrest, according to the prosecutors. Gore held up his cell phone and yelled at the officers, “Watch what’s gonna happen!”
Hanley, who’d just arrived at the scene slightly earlier, decided to follow Gore and his girlfriend, who were in their parked car about 150 feet away.
The videos show the officers fighting to pull Gore out of the car, as he asks, “Why are you pulling me?,” then getting him on the ground. Lugo tells him to put his hands behind his back, and Gore instead hides his hands under his stomach. There’s an audible click when Lugo gets Gore cuffed. There’s an audible thump when Hanley kicks Gore in the side. “You big [expletive] tough guy, you got what you wanted,” Hanley is heard telling Gore.
Hanley grinds his knee into the back of Gore’s head and neck, while holding onto the car door for balance, saying: “You got what you wanted, right? You good, big guy? Then, shut up!”
Hanley can also be seen winding up to hit Gore. He also walks behind Gore, who is on the ground, and steps on both of his calves.
Throughout, Gore can be heard pleading, nearly a dozen times: “What did I do?”
Hanley responds at the end: “Don’t call the cops from a block away.”
Hanley’s lawyer, Michael Colucci, argued that Gore was “tensing” his body while he was handcuffed, a possible indication that he was resisting and about to act out. Hanley was using tactics to control a suspect who was resisting — tactics that a layperson like Perry Gagne wouldn’t recognize, Colucci said.
Colucci also questioned whether Hanley used his fist or struck Gore with an open hand, whether he walked on Gore’s legs to protect himself from being kicked by Gore.
Zienowicz testified that a person who has been struck may tense up to protect themselves from another blow, and said there was no reason for Hanley to be walking past Gore at the time.
Lugo had Gore under control, Zienowicz said. “I didn’t see Mr. Gore thrashing about, moving his legs, trying to get up,” he said.
While the videos showed the scene, there should have been more of them, special assistant attorney general Michael McCabe pointed out. Hanley had a body-worn camera, but did not turn it on until after the alleged assault, McCabe said.
Hanley’s body-worn camera was recording when a supervisor, Lt. Christopher Currier, arrived at the scene and Hanley informed him about the arrests. Hanley said he didn’t have his camera on “because [expletive] was malfunctioning and flew off,” as did Lugo’s, while they were wrestling with Gore.
Zienowicz testified there was no evidence that Hanley’s camera was ripped off or malfunctioned. And Lugo’s camera started recording when the officers began walking to the BMW to arrest Gore, he said.
The trial resumes Thursday morning.