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Providence police defend use of deadly force after I-95 shooting

Providence Police Department via AP

A still image from an officer's body camera video released by the Providence Police Department.

By Globe Staff 

Providence and Rhode Island State Police who fatally shot a man Thursday on a crowded highway near the Providence Place Mall fired more than 40 rounds at the victim’s truck after he refused to stop and instead used his vehicle as “a weapon,” authorities said Friday.

Speaking during an afternoon briefing, Providence Police Colonel Hugh T. Clements Jr. identified the victim as Joseph Santos, 32. Santos’s passenger in the truck, Christine Demers, 37, was also shot and remained hospitalized Friday after undergoing surgery.

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Her condition wasn’t known. Family members of Santos, who police said had two open warrants including one for a possible domestic incident, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

In another harrowing incident that Rhode Island authorities said may or may not be related to the fatal shooting, police said a suspect stole a police cruiser on Thursday and then spent more than a day on the lam.

Donald Morgan, 35, of Providence, was caught by the state’s violent fugitive task force in Cumberland, R.I., Friday night.

Officials said they were still investigating whether Morgan had any ties to Santos and Demers.

Morgan was held overnight pending his arraignment on Saturday, Rhode Island State Police said in a statement.

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Clements and Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré both defended the officers who fired at the truck, insisting that the officers felt Santos presented an imminent danger to the public with his reckless driving and his ramming of at least one other vehicle on the highway.

Clements noted that one Providence officer “heroically” pulled a woman out of a car that Santos had struck with his pickup.

Authorities released dramatic video footage of the pursuit and the final, deadly encounter on an on-ramp to Interstate 95 by the mall. The footage was captured by state Department of Transportation cameras and a police body camera.

In the footage, Santos’s truck is seen speeding on Route 10 and darting across two lanes of traffic, trailed by multiple cruisers. He continues onto the ramp to I-95 North, darting around other cars as the cruisers continue to give chase.

Then, Santos becomes boxed in by vehicles on the ramp, and a number of officers are seen rushing toward the truck on foot with guns drawn. Authorities said officers loudly ordered Santos to stop; the footage shows the truck instead reversing into one vehicle and then striking two others as it moves forward.

All told, Clements said, Providence officers shot approximately 20 of the more than 40 rounds that both police agencies fired at the truck in an effort to stop it.

The shooting remains under investigation, but Clements said authorities believe the footage shows the officers “doing exactly what we would want them to do in stopping an imminent and significant threat in that moment, for the people around that vehicle.”

Asked by a reporter what officials would say to the family of Santos, who the reporter said described him as a “scared young man” with a suspended license, Paré was sympathetic.

“We understand that perspective, and our sympathies go out to [Santos’s] family,” Paré said. “But when there’s an imminent threat with a weapon by way of that vehicle, judgments and decisions have to be made.”

He said investigators “have not determined whether” there was a gun in the white truck.

Law enforcement officials laid out a timeline for the events leading up to the fatal shooting.

Things were set in motion around 9 a.m., officials said, when a handcuffed suspect identified as Morgan, stole a State Police cruiser after a trooper who was taking him to a court appearance stopped the vehicle to check out a crash scene.

Providence police were alerted to the theft and were told that the cruiser contained a firearm, Clements said. Soon after, he said, police recovered the abandoned cruiser in the city’s Elmwood section on Vineyard Street. He said the gun was still in the cruiser, but Morgan was nowhere to be found.

About an hour later, a witness told a Providence officer that someone matching Morgan’s description was seen trying to get into a white pickup truck, prompting police to stop multiple white trucks in the area, Clements said.

Around 10:35 a.m., Cranston police informed Providence officers that a white pickup truck had refused to stop on Silver Lake Avenue near the city line, and Providence police eventually picked up the pursuit, leading to the fatal encounter.

The officials could not provide information on the relationship between Santos and Demers.

Morgan, who had been arrested Wednesday night on charges of obstruction and receiving a stolen vehicle, was arrested Friday evening.

Court records show Morgan has a lengthy criminal record with prior no-contest pleas for shoplifting, simple assault, conspiracy, obstructing an officer, disorderly conduct, and breaking and entering.

Cranston Police Colonel Michael J. Winquist said that neither Santos nor Morgan had any known ties to his city.

Santos was driving the white truck “in an erratic manner prior to the motor vehicle stop” in Cranston, Winquist said in a statement Friday. “Prior to the stop, the officer was also aware of an earlier police broadcast that a suspect had stolen a State Police cruiser and may have fled by jumping in the bed of a white pickup. When my officer exited his vehicle and approached the pickup, the vehicle sped off at a high rate of speed.”


Danny McDonald of Globe staff contributed to this report Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.