PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Michaela Perry Gagne was in her bedroom on a Sunday night last April when she saw police lights and peered out the window.
What she saw happening directly below was “horrifying,” Perry Gagne later wrote in an email to Providence police. She recorded video on her iPhone, she testified Wednesday, as a white police officer kicked, punched and stood on the legs of a Black man who was handcuffed on the ground.
Perry Gagne didn’t know the officer or the man on the ground. But she felt compelled to tell someone about what she had captured on tape, even though her boyfriend told her to mind her own business. Her email to police two days later sparked an investigation that led to Sgt. Joseph Hanley being suspended from his job and eventually charged with misdemeanor assault.
“I felt not safe,” she said on the stand. “These people are supposed to protect us.”
Perry Gagne was the first witness to be called by the prosecution at Hanley’s trial, which began Wednesday in Providence District Court before Judge Brian Goldman.
Hanley, a 17-year veteran of the Providence Police Department, was charged with assaulting Rishod Gore in May of last year, a month after the April 19 incident.
Police had initially responded to a domestic disturbance that night on Knight Street, arresting a friend of Gore’s while Gore stood nearby recording on his cell phone, prosecutors detailed in their opening arguments. Gore shouted at police as he walked away and got into the passenger side of a black BMW on Tell Street, according to prosecutors.
Hanley and another officer followed, prosecutors said, walking to the car and pulling Gore out while a woman in the driver’s seat screamed. Body camera video shows the officers pulling Gore from the car and to the ground, handcuffing him, before Hanley begins kicking Gore and stepping on his calves.
“You want to act like a savage, that’s what you get,” Hanley is heard saying in the video that was played in court.
In his opening statement, Special Assistant Attorney General Michael McCabe said the force Hanley used was unreasonable and excessive.
“This defendant intended to teach Rishod Gore a lesson,” McCabe told the judge. “He wanted to punish him. If you mouth off to police, this is what you get.”
In presenting their case, prosecutors called Providence Sgt. Paul Zienowicz to the stand, who works in the Office of Professional Responsibility. He was on the receiving end of Perry Gagne’s first email, and reached out to her to get a copy of her cell phone video.
“I was astonished, quite frankly,” Zienowicz testified Wednesday. “The strikes after he was handcuffed I thought were excessive and against policy.”
Hanley was suspended one day later. He kissed his badge before handing it in along with his gun, Zienowicz said.
The subsequent investigation — comprising multiple angles of body camera footage, interviews with witnesses, police officers and Gore, along with other documentation, such as after-incident reports — led police to charge Hanley with assault.
Gore, the alleged victim, did not show up at court Wednesday despite being told repeatedly he was required to be there, prosecutors told the judge. Goldman signed a body attachment — a type of civil warrant — for sheriffs to go find him and bring him to court to testify.
Following the prosecution’s opening statements, Hanley’s defense attorney Michael Colucci began laying out his argument that the force Hanley used was reasonable and necessary to subdue Gore. He argued you can’t see in the video how he was “tensing” on the ground, a form of resisting arrest.
“I will prove that the tactics and force used by the sergeant were necessary to gain control of an actively resisting suspect prior to, during and subsequent to the cuffing,” Colucci said in his opening statement.
He argued Hanley only used “compliance strikes,” aimed to get Gore under control. Colucci said Hanley wasn’t kneeling on Gore’s neck, but rather his shoulder. The sergeant walked on Gore’s calves in order to avoid being kicked in the groin, Colucci added.
Colucci spent hours cross-examining Zienowicz about the findings of his investigation, attempting to cast doubt on what’s shown in the videos.
For example, he claimed Hanley didn’t kick Gore in the side, at it appears in the video, but was actually using his shin to push on Gore’s elbow in an attempt to get him to loosen his tense arms.
Zienowicz pointed out that Gore could have been tensed up because he had just been punched, not because he was trying to resist police. He also said another officer — Abraham Lugo — seemed to have a secure hold on the handcuffed Gore on the ground, so he was already under police control at the time Hanley struck him.
The prosecution is expected to continue calling witnesses when courts resumes Thursday morning.
Later in the trial, Colucci plans to call an expert witness to testify about police use-of-force.
He also gave some indication of how he might frame Gore’s testimony, if the alleged victim is brought in.
“Mr. Gore’s credibility is less than desirable,” he suggested while questioning Zienowicz.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.