PROVIDENCE — Police were called to break up a fight on Sayles Street in South Providence earlier in the week, an incident that quickly escalated to involve pepper spray, beatings, and additional officers from throughout the city on a hot and humid evening.
Local activists and people involved in the incident said that police had, unprovoked, attacked and pepper sprayed more than 20 children, one as young as 1 year old. Bystander videos and police body-worn camera footage of the incident, released late Thursday, do not immediately seem to support that claim.
City and departmental leaders on Friday reserved their criticism for some of the officers’ statements and demeanor captured in the video, rather than the force they used to control the volatile situation on Sayles Street. But, they said, their review, including into the use of force, was continuing.
“You see officers who arrive that act professionally and de-escalate, but you also see several instances of officers who used inappropriate language, did not de-escalate the situation, and simply do not reflect the police department that we strive to be,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said at a news conference Friday at police headquarters.
Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré said accounts of police beating or pepper-spraying children was “inaccurate.” Only about an hour of footage from one officer’s body camera has been released so far. As many as 25 more videos from the police response — which eventually pulled in every available officer in the city — will eventually be released once the city redacts it to protect the identities of some of the people involved.
The video released so far does show police using offensive or inappropriate language, such as an officer describing a participant in the dispute as a “she-male,” an officer asking whether some people there were “civilized”, and an officer calling a boy a “punk.” One bystander video also shows an officer saying after police sprayed pepper spray: “Who wants some more?”
Paré said that while an officer treated a bystander who was recording video disrespectfully, he did not believe this showed a pattern of unprofessional conduct.
“Police officers are human beings, and they lose their temper, but we’re trained to not lose our temper, and we’re trained to de-escalate,” Paré said. “I don’t think it’s a pattern but when it comes up we address it.”
Police leaders said Friday they have responded to that area more than 40 times in the past year and a half, including for disturbances, but never for a scene as chaotic as the one on Tuesday. The latest response came at about 6 p.m., when someone reported that the situation was out of control. A second call alleged that a group was trying to provoke the caller’s 7-year-old daughter into a fight. Fights among adults were breaking out.
One officer arrived and successfully de-escalated the situation, but it sparked up again with adults arguing or fighting. Police tried to get the respective groups back into their houses. At one point officers went into a crowd of people to arrest someone who earlier had committed an assault, the department said Friday. One woman, who learned her mother had been “jumped,” was provoked by someone throwing a glass bottle, police said. Officers ran in to get her out. At one point an officer’s body camera falls off, and he pushes a man who was standing on it to retrieve it, police said.
In the melee, police used pepper spray — what police called an effective tool to get people to leave the area. “Unfortunately, young children caught some of that. We have no evidence that spray was used directly” at those children, Paré said.
Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., chief of the Providence police, said that the pepper spray was used “according to policy.”
Five people — four juveniles and one adult — were arrested in the incident. No officer has been placed on leave.
As in the Jhamal Gonsalves crash in October 2020, the early stages of the review of this incident are following a pattern: Activists make claims, police dispute them, everyone argues over what the video footage shows. Any potential discipline seems to center on peripheral behavior, not the main incident itself. And while activists will call for defunding or even outright abolishing the police, the city will give police millions more dollars amid concerns from the community about an increase in the most violent crimes. The reforms that the mayor has proposed are less radical than abolishing the police, but even those — diversion services for things like mental health calls — wouldn’t have made a difference in this case, Elorza said.
Soon every police department in the state, not just Providence, will get body cameras. Department leaders said Friday footage from such cameras allowed more scrutiny from the public but also more accountability for officers who break the rules.
Some disagree. One of the attendees of the news conference Friday was state Sen. Tiara Mack, a Democrat of Providence who favors defunding and abolishing the police. Afterward, she dismissed body cameras as counterproductive and ineffectual in the absence of any real discipline, like firing. She said she was aghast by what she saw.
“We saw what happened,” Mack said. “Yet there’s still no clear mechanism to hold those officers accountable for what they did. We saw officers escalate, we heard and we saw the tactics they used, and there’s still no clear mechanism to hold those officers accountable.”