PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said the criminal investigation into two Providence officers accused of excessive force when arresting teenagers wielding BB rifles will be concluded within a few weeks.
Despite pressure from local politicians and activists, Neronha said he will not authorize the release of videos from officers’ body-worn cameras until the investigation is “substantially complete.”
The US Attorney’s Office is also reviewing the case for possible federal constitutional rights violations, which Neronha said was routine when officers are investigated for possibly using excessive force.
Black Lives Matter RI PAC, along with Direct Action for Rights and Equality, the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, and local legislators wrote an open letter and signed an online petition Monday demanding that Neronha immediately release the videos.
Mayor Jorge O. Elorza and public safety commissioner Steven M. Paré had both called the footage “appalling.” Activists had posted a bystander’s cellphone video that showed one of the teens being taken away on a stretcher.
Officers Domingo Diaz and Mitchel Voyer are both suspended with pay during the investigation. They were among several officers who arrested three local teenage boys who had allegedly been speeding around the city for hours in a convertible BMW, aiming BB rifles at people, including a police officer, and shooting people and property.
The pursuit ended in the wee hours of July 9, when the 15-year-old driver crashed into a fire hydrant near Manton Heights. The driver and his passengers, two boys aged 15 and 16, were charged with several felonies; police said they seized two BB rifles and a ski mask from the vehicle.
One of the boys was taken to Hasbro Children’s Hospital for treatment and later released to the Rhode Island Training School.
Activist organizations protested the arrests.
“Claims that the violence was justified are outrageous. The youth were carrying BB guns, not assault weapons,” DARE said in a statement two weeks after the incident. “They were beaten to the point of unconsciousness, long after surrendering.”
Monday’s open letter was signed by politicians and activists who have called for defunding or abolishing the police, including Tiara Mack and Sam Bell, Providence senators; David Morales, a Providence representative; City Councilwoman Kat Kerwin of Providence; Senator Cynthia Mendes, of Pawtucket and East Providence; and Senator Jonathon Acosta, who represents Central Falls and Pawtucket and sponsored the law establishing a statewide body-worn camera program in Rhode Island.
Black Lives Matter RI PAC said the mayor’s comment about the video implied that there was severe misconduct, and accused Neronha of not meeting his pledge of transparency.
“How can we restore trust if the process does not have transparency?” the PAC asked. “How can you restore trust when the community knows that the police are consistently behaving “unprofessionally” and their actions are described as “appalling”? Accountability requires transparency.”
Neronha said that waiting until the criminal case is substantially investigated doesn’t mean he isn’t being transparent.
“I respect the people signing the petition, and I understand the motivation behind it, but when you’re in this seat… we have to stick by what the facts of the law are,” he said Monday.
When there’s no possibility of criminal charges, police departments are free to release videos to the public, Neronha said.
However, when there is a criminal investigation, the prosecution team has to make sure the investigation is largely finished, and that all of the witnesses have given statements, he said.
“It’s really important that when witnesses testify that we take down what they said directly, and that it’s not based on what they saw in the media,” Neronha said. “We want witnesses locked in and statements written down, before they can be accused of changing their story.”
State prosecutors can advise police to release videos from body-worn cameras before trials, as long as they don’t make any comments on the videos beyond the facts, according to an opinion from the state Supreme Court’s ethics advisory panel.
The mayor and public safety commissioner have already commented on the videos.
Neronha said Elorza’s comments “are of no moment to me.” While Pare is considered part of the prosecution team as the public safety director, Neronha said the commissioner was also commenting as someone who is running the Police Department.
Neronha said that he expects the videos will be released when the investigation is concluded — and not before then.
“You don’t want your case going down because of a mistake you made and public pressure, and I’m not going to do that,” he said.