PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha on Wednesday said he expects it will take “several weeks” to wrap up an investigation into an Aug. 14 incident in which witnesses say a correctional officer drove a pickup truck into protesters at a Central Falls prison.
“I don’t expect this to take months,” Neronha said.
Investigators are focusing not only on the pickup truck but also on the use of pepper spray by correctional officers, Neronha said at a press conference alongside State Police and Central Falls police officials. So far, investigators have interviewed 31 witnesses, and at least 20 witnesses remain to be interviewed, he said.
“So we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Neronha said. “But let me be clear: We want to speak to anyone who has information regarding what occurred that night — what they saw, what they heard, what injuries they suffered.”
On Aug. 14, protesters gathered outside the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, a nonprofit prison run by a quasipublic corporation, to object to the detention of immigrants held there for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Video shows a black pickup truck swerving toward protesters blocking the prison employee parking lot. Protesters scream, then the truck stops and then lurches forward. Organizers have said five protesters were injured. The driver, Captain Thomas Woodworth, has resigned.
“Certain individuals have reported . . . contact with the vehicle operated that night and with what is commonly known as pepper spray,” Neronha said. “To reach the right conclusions, it is imperative we speak to every witness that was there that night and every witness who reports injury. To the extent we consider charges, the injuries are highly significant.”
Neronha acknowledged that it’s unusual to hold a news conference at this point in the process, but he recognizes there is significant public interest in this matter.
Neronha declined to say how many people are being investigated or what possible charges they could face. “I don’t mean to channel my inner Belichick here, but I cannot [answer those questions],” he said.
Investigators believe they have spoken to most of the eyewitnesses, and they have reviewed video taken by protesters, by Wyatt, and by members of the media, he said.
When asked whether he has seen any indication that the protest was anything other than peaceful, Neronha said, “No, I haven’t, but we are still evaluating it.”
“We have a fundamental right in this country to peacefully protest,” Neronha said. He noted protesters can be arrested if, for example, they endanger public safety by blocking a roadway such as Route 95 in Providence — as happened in 2014 following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.
But, Neronha said, “When you engage in that kind of civil disobedience, what you expect is to be handled professionally.”
The Central Falls police chief, Colonel Daniel J. Barzykowski, said at the press conference that his department had a plan in place “to provide public safety to the protesters” on Aug. 14. But it was the correctional officers who ended up confronting protesters who blocked the parking lot.
Did Barzykowski — who began his law enforcement career in 1995 as a correctional officer with the Wyatt Detention Facility — think it was appropriate for correctional officers to deal with the protesters rather than members of the Central Falls Police Department?
“I am going to not speak on that because of the investigation,” he replied. “So at this time, I really can’t comment on that.”
As to whether he was satisfied with his department’s response to the incident: “I believe my office acted appropriately and responsibly,” Barzykowski said. “An unfortunate incident occurred. We are going to work together to ensure the public trust is maintained.”
The State Police superintendent, Colonel James M. Manni, said five state troopers in three State Police cruisers were patrolling in the area that night, but they were not at Wyatt when the incident occurred.