Former police officer to lead civilian oversight of Providence Police

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence City Council has approved Ferenc Karoly as the new executive director of the Providence External Review Authority, or PERA, the civilian board with oversight over the Providence Police.

The nine-member board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct, has been essentially in limbo for more than a year after firing prior executive director Jose Batista because he released body camera video of Sgt. Joseph Hanley kicking and punching a handcuffed suspect last year.

Karoly was approved in a unanimous voice vote at a council meeting Thursday night after being recommended by the PERA board last month. The full-time job pays between $94,773 and $108,774 and is the only job currently filled at the board, though city ordinance allows other staff to potentially be hired.

Karoly is a former Middletown police officer who rose to be deputy chief of the department before leaving in 2019. He is currently a lawyer with the firm Lynch & Pine, according to his resume. He is also a Navy veteran and lives in Portsmouth.

In an interview after the meeting, Karoly told 12 News PERA needs to act as an external “looking glass” into the police department, but also said he’ll seek to form a partnership with police leaders so the oversight board can be effective.

“This is long overdue for policing,” Karoly said. “It is very difficult for some people to hold a friend of theirs accountable for something they did wrong. It’s easy to rationalize and make excuses.”

Karoly said one of his first tasks will be assessing the status of the open cases before the board, which has not been investigating complaints since Batista was fired.

Karoly noted that PERA does not have any enforcement power — it can only make recommendations following its review of potential misconduct — and said he was interested in discussing whether the city ordinance needs to be amended. But he stopped short of saying PERA should be able to discipline police officers.

“The chief of police should have the authority to discipline their staff,” Karoly said.

As an example of a possible change, Karoly said PERA could conduct audits of investigations by the attorney general’s office or the police internal affairs office, rather than conducting a parallel investigation.

PERA was established in 2002 but remained dormant until the passage of the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA) in 2017, which revived the panel and gave PERA several powers including investigating potential violations of the PCPRA, reviewing union contracts and hearing appeals of people whose names appear in the city’s gang database.

Batista, who is now a state representative, was hired as executive director in 2018. He is currently suing the city for wrongful termination after the PERA board fired him for publicly releasing the Hanley video. (Hanley was convicted of assault earlier this year.)

The video — generally considered a public record — had been withheld by city officials, forcing PERA to ask the City Council to subpoena the Police Department to obtain it. But the board then viewed the video in secret and voted not to release it, prompting Batista to do so on his own.

Karoly appeared to reference the video issue in testimony before the City Council Finance Committee last month, noting that he may propose a change to city ordinance making it clear that PERA has access to police records so there’s “no wiggle room or ambiguity as to what we are entitled to.”

But he appeared to differ from his predecessor on whether body camera video should be released publicly amid an ongoing criminal case.

“If you’re talking about a pending criminal case, we don’t release evidence in that case to the public because it can potentially impact the outcome of that case,” Karoly told reporters. “I think if its evidence in a criminal case it needs to be preserved.” (He declined to comment on Batista’s actions specifically.)

He said he would discuss any potential release of video or evidence with the attorney general’s office.

At the Council Finance meeting last month, PERA vice-chair Susan DeRita said there have been 78 complaints total made to PERA, 43 of which have been brought to some sort of conclusion.

She said the records are currently “extremely disorganized,” which Karoly will also be tasked with sorting through.

Karoly was widely praised by the committee members, though Councilman Nick Narducci noted his address.

“When are you moving to Providence?” Narducci asked. “That’s the only thing I didn’t like about your resume.”

Karoly said he plans to remain in Portsmouth rather than uproot his kids, who attend high school and middle school there.

DeRita said there were two applicants from Providence, but they were deemed “not suitable for the position.”

Vanessa Flores-Maldonado, an activist and executive director of the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), expressed disappointment that PERA hired a former police officer to lead the board.

“It’s supposed to be a civilian oversight board,” Flores-Maldonado said. “He’s no longer a police officer, but he was one. And we know that police work as a brotherhood. I think it is very inappropriate.”

Karoly said he believes his experience in law enforcement will be a strength in the job.

“I would say to people who have any reservations about my history as a police officer … you don’t know me and you have to wait and see what we do,” Karoly said. “If you can ever point to a situation where that has somehow colored my decision-making or there’s a perception that I’m not doing my job, then we can have that conversation.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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