fb-pixel Skip to main content
RI COURTS

Providence police officer Jeann Lugo acquitted in assault case

Though the patrolman was off duty and did not identify himself as a police officer when he punched his political opponent, Jennifer Rourke, during an abortion-rights rally in June, a judge ruled that Lugo’s actions were “justified” because he was trying to maintain “public order.”

Providence police officer Jeann Lugo at the Garrahy Judicial Complex in July 2022.David DelPoio/Pool

WARWICK, R.I. — Jeann Lugo, the Providence police patrolman and former Republican state Senate candidate who punched his political opponent in the face while off duty at an abortion rights rally, was acquitted of assault on Wednesday.

District Court Judge J. Terence Houlihan Jr. said he concluded that the incident at an abortion-rights rally on June 24 was “a melee” that happened in “scant few seconds.” Though Lugo was off duty at the time, the judge said Lugo’s actions were “justified” by the patrolman’s duty to “maintain public order.”

Houlihan said evidence showed that Rourke held Lugo back as he approached an unidentified man in a green jacket who had “assumed a fighting stance.” Lugo turned toward Rourke and struck her with an open hand, and after Rourke struck him, Lugo “quickly returns the blow,” the judge said.

Advertisement



The assault was caught on video by a Globe reporter and local reporter Bill Bartholomew, who works for WPRO and has his own podcast.

“While the court can speculate that, at the time, it may have been advisable for Mr. Lugo to simply identify himself as a police officer, or to take other defensive moves in furtherance of his goal to maintain public order, the court does not find the actions of Mr. Lugo unreasonable in light of the circumstances and events,” Houlihan said.

“Mr. Lugo’s actions were in furtherance of maintaining the public order and thus justified by his public authority,” the judge concluded,

Daniel P. Griffin, a criminal defense attorney representing Lugo, said Lugo is happy with the verdict.

“He never should have been arrested in the first place. It’s the right verdict,” Griffin told the Globe. “He was railroaded. We just hope the city of Providence does the right thing and puts him back to work.”

Advertisement



Lugo, 35, told the Globe he is going through the LEOBOR process and wants to rejoin the police department.

But the acquittal does not change the police department’s position, Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare told the Globe. In the days after the June 24 incident, Lugo was placed on paid leave but the police chief recommended that Lugo be fired. Now that the criminal case is over, the Providence Police Department will move to fire Lugo under the state statute governing how officers are disciplined, Pare told the Globe.

Brian Hodge, a spokesman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office, said, “While this office advocated for a different result, we respect the court’s decision and thank Judge Houlihan for his careful consideration of the evidence and legal issues presented over several days of trial.”

The Black Lives Matter RI PAC issued a statement on Rourke’s behalf with her permission.

“No person, let alone a political candidate should have to fear or face physical violence, based on their political views,” the group said. “Along with her alleged physical assault, which was captured on camera, her rights to free speech and public demonstration were robbed from her, by an officer who swore an oath to protect those rights for all citizens.”

“Unfortunately the justice system failed her, and we know at this time, her grief and trauma is indescribable,” BLM RI PAC said. “Today is a clear example of how policing in our state and capital city needs to be examined under heavy scrutiny.”

Advertisement



The incident occurred at an abortion rights rally at the Rhode Island State House on June 24. Jennifer T. Rourke, a candidate for a state Senate seat in Warwick’s District 29, had just finished giving a speech in front of more than 1,500 attendees when she saw a commotion on the steps below. The US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier that day, and tensions were high when Josh Mello of Cranston, who was live-streaming the event, shouted something at organizers and speakers.

Mello was quickly surrounded by angry attendees and Rourke — one of the organizers of the event, who works with The Womxn’s Project — rushed over to try to defuse the situation. She and others asked Mello to leave, Rourke testified at a hearing on Aug. 30. But as she waved her arms, yelled “Don’t hit!” and urged people to step away, Mello was assaulted by an unidentified man in a green- and white-striped jacket. Moments later, Rourke was punched twice in the face by off-duty Providence police officer Jeann Lugo — her political opponent for the District 29 seat.

Video from the demonstration shows Rourke holding her hands up and repeatedly asking people, in English and Spanish, to move away. She asked Mello to leave, and she said he agreed.

Lugo was arrested on June 25 and charged with assault and disorderly conduct. He dropped out of the District 29 race, and was suspended with pay from the police department, per state law regulations under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, also known as LEOBOR. Providence Police Chief Hugh T. Clements recommended that Lugo be fired.

Advertisement



“Based on the facts and circumstances presented to me, I have lost confidence in your capacity and ability to exercise self-control and to conduct yourself in a civil, respectful, and professional manner,” wrote Clements in a document that outlined the findings of the department’s internal investigation. “Your disturbing, egregious, assaultive, and unprofessional behavior while off duty has brought discredit to your name and has tarnished the proud reputation of the Providence Police Department.”

Lugo pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on July 8. His bail was set at $2,000 personal recognizance and he was ordered to have no contact with the complaining witness. He has requested a LEOBOR hearing.

In response to questions from the Globe immediately after the incident, Lugo did not deny punching Rourke.

“As an officer that swore to protect and serve our communities, I, unfortunately, saw myself in a situation that no individual should see themselves in,” Lugo said in an email to the Globe on June 25. “I stepped in to protect someone that a group of agitators was attacking.”

During Lugo’s hearing on Aug. 30, Rhode Island Assistant Attorney General Daniel Carr Guglielmo called Rourke a “completely blameless victim” in a situation that could have gone “completely out of control.”

But Griffin, a criminal defense attorney representing Lugo, asked to dismiss the case, arguing that Lugo used “enough force as necessary,” as the law permits. He said Lugo was reaching to help Mello, but Rourke held Lugo back. He claimed that Lugo’s actions were in self defense and in defense of others.

Advertisement



“You can look at this as a cold, hard self-defense case,” he said. “A big, strong guy like Lugo... had to turn around and engage with her,” said Griffin, calling for Rourke’s testimony to be “thrown out.”

Carr Guglielmo disagreed.

“He was not in danger. I also don’t believe it’s a reasonable use of force,” said Carr Guglielmo. “He’s a trained police officer and he’s using a strike to the face.”

At the August hearing, Judge Houlihan dismissed the disorderly conduct charge against Lugo, saying it did not appear as though he was “stirring the crowd,” but said the charge of simple assault will survive. He said it was clear in the videos circulating on social media that Rourke was pushed by the crowd and that the situation with Mello had already deescalated when Lugo “stepped back and hit Miss Rourke with both the right and left hand.” He said that Griffin’s argument about the action being in self-defense was not applicable.

On Wednesday, however, Houlihan said Lugo acted “in furtherance of maintaining public order and thus justified by his public authority,” and that “the court does not find the actions of Mr. Lugo unreasonable in light of the circumstances and events.”

Material from previous Globe Rhode Islands articles was used in this report. Amanda Milkovits of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This article has been updated to include statements from the Public Safety Commissioner and BLM-RI PAC.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv. Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.