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Grand jury: Police justified in fatal Nov. highway shooting

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) -- The Providence County Grand Jury has found that several R.I. State Police troopers and Providence police officers were "lawful and legally justified" in their actions when they shot and killed a suspect on an on-ramp to I-95 in Providence last November, the R.I. Attorney General's office announced Friday.

The shooting on the northbound I-95 on-ramp near the Providence Place mall resulted in the death of 32-year-old Joseph Santos and injured his passenger Christine Demers. It followed a high-speed chase through the city that began when Santos fled a traffic stop, according to police, and was tied to the theft of a state police cruiser earlier that day, allegedly committed by a friend of Santos.

A witness said moments before the shooting, Santos refused to exit the truck for police and then drove the vehicle into a cruiser. Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements said Santos was "purposely ramming other people" and was an "imminent danger" to the public.

A ballistics report reveals it was a state police trooper that fired the fatal shot. Investigators from the state crime lab were able to determine that because the two agencies use different caliber weapons.

In a statement Friday, Col. Ann Assumpico of the state police said the grand jury "made the right decision."

"The men and women of the Rhode Island State Police and the Providence Police Department did what they are trained to do - to protect the lives of innocent people who were in imminent danger that day," Assumpico said.

Attorney John Cicilline, who represents Demers, said his client testified before the Providence County grand jury on Wednesday.

Cicilline said on the day of the shooting, Demers was shot once to the back and immediately dropped to the floor of the pickup truck. He said the single bullet did serious damage to several organs and surgeons ultimately had to remove her kidney to save her life.

The ACLU of Rhode Island released a statement on Friday reacting to the grand jury's decision and calling for a deeper investigation into the shooting.

"While the grand jury's decision is not surprising, it would be wrong to consider this the end of the matter," ACLU of RI Executive Director Steven Brown said in the statement. "Providence police and State troopers put the public at great risk by engaging in an unnecessarily dangerous high-speed chase, and then opening fire on a busy highway after Santos' vehicle was largely immobilized."

He said the "incident calls for a serious examination by these agencies of their practices and protocols." 

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said the department is the process of reviewing their policies and procedures and plan to meet with community leaders for their input.

The stunning broad daylight shooting happened after a city-wide manhunt for a man who allegedly stole a state police cruiser. Donald Morgan, 35, was in the rear of a cruiser and being transported to court when the trooper pulled over on Route 146 to assist another motorist. Police say Morgan hopped into the front seat and drove off.

Later in the morning, a Providence police officer received a tip that the suspect was seen climbing into the bed of a white pickup truck and the information was broadcast to police officers and troopers. A Cranston patrolman later spotted a white pickup truck and attempted to pull it over when investigators say it sped off, igniting the pursuit that ended in a hail of gunfire.

In the end, the truck - driven by Santos - did not have Morgan in it. It's unclear what prompted Santos to flee, but traffic camera video showed him ramming into other vehicles on the on-ramp when he was boxed in by police, prompting the shooting.

Morgan was captured in Cumberland the next day by the Rhode Island Violent Fugitive Task Force.

Two other people who lived at the home where Morgan was arrested, 54-year-old Daniel Medeiros and 47-year-old Rachael Read, were charged with harboring a fugitive. Police said they were friends of Morgan's.

In the wake of the incident, Assumpico said she was ordering all state police cruisers have a partition between the front and back seats installed. Earlier this week she said she hopes to have all cruisers outfitted with the divider within three months.

The Attorney General's office also released the names of the officers involved:

Rhode Island State Police:

  • Lieutenant Cynthia Trahan
  • Corporal Scott Carlsten
  • Corporal Herbert Tilson
  • Trooper Garrett Hassett

Providence Police Officers:

  • Major Oscar Perez
  • Sergeant Gregory Paolo
  • Officer Matthew McGloin
  • Officer Thomas Zincone
  • Officer Christopher Ziroli

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