PROVIDENCE — Former state Senate candidate Jennifer Rourke on Thursday said a judge set “a dangerous precedent” by acquitting her political opponent, Jeann Lugo, an off-duty police officer who punched her in the face during a State House rally.
On Wednesday, state District Court Judge J. Terence Houlihan Jr. acquitted Lugo of an assault charge, describing the incident at a June 24 abortion-rights rally as “a melee” that played out 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.”
In a statement, Rourke said she was “deeply disappointed” by the verdict.
“The Rhode Island judicial system has not only failed me, it has failed us,” she said. “With this verdict, Judge Houlihan has asserted that law enforcement officers should be held to a lower standard than you and I. This verdict unilaterally decides that law enforcement officers should not be held accountable for their actions, no matter how violent or out of control they might be, simply because of their chosen occupation and the badge they wear.”
Rourke — a Democratic candidate for a state Senate seat in Warwick’s District 29 and a co-founder of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative — delivered a speech in front of more than 1,500 attendees at the June 24 abortion rights rally, which was prompted by the US Supreme Court decision earlier in the day overturning Roe v. Wade.
Tensions were high when Josh Mello, a Cranston man 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 Project — rushed over to try to defuse the situation.
Mello was assaulted by an unidentified man in a green jacket. Moments later, Rourke was punched twice in the face by Lugo, an off-duty Providence police officer and her Republican opponent for the District 29 seat.
Houlihan said Rourke held Lugo back as he approached the man in the 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.
“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.”
“As a Black woman and a victim of physical assault from a police officer, I stand where many survivors have stood before — with our voices silenced and stories dismissed, abandoned by the state structures that were sworn to protect us and keep us safe,” she said. “This verdict makes it clear that these structures are not intended to keep us safe, they are only intended to protect their own.”
Rourke said the Rhode Island judicial system “mocks us by giving police officers a separate bill of rights than the rest of us.”
“If we seek to make Rhode Island safe for all of us, we must ensure that violence is not tolerated from our law enforcement officers and they are held accountable for their actions when both on-duty and off,” she said.
In the days after the June 24 incident, Lugo was placed on paid leave but the police chief recommended that Lugo be fired.
After Wednesday’s verdict, Lugo told the Globe he is going through the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights process and wants to rejoin the Providence Police Department.
But Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Pare told the Globe the acquittal does not change the police department’s position. He said now that the criminal case is over, the department will move to fire Lugo under the state statute governing how officers are disciplined.
Rourke urged the Providence and its police department to “make the correct decision” and to prevent Lugo from being reinstated. “He has made it clear that he cannot be trusted with a badge or power and will not hesitate to inflict harm,” she said.
Rourke thanked Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office “for their hard work and dedication in this case.” She asked that the public “please grant me and my family privacy as we seek to heal and move forward from this immense miscarriage of justice.”