PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence External Review Authority (PERA), a civilian oversight board, voted Monday night to fire its executive director after he unilaterally released a video of a Providence police sergeant allegedly assaulting a suspect.
The vote was 6 to 3 in favor of terminating Jose Batista, the full-time executive director, who was hired by the volunteer board last year to handle duties such as investigating and mediating complaints of police misconduct made by members of the public.
Batista, a Democratic state representative-elect for Providence, had acknowledged last week he was jeopardizing his job in going against the board’s wishes by releasing the video, which shows Sgt. Joseph Hanley allegedly assaulting a man named Rishod Gore back in April.
The video shows the sergeant — who is currently suspended without pay following six months of paid suspension — kneeling on the neck of Mr. Gore, kicking him in the side and stepping on his legs while Gore is handcuffed on the ground.
Hanley was charged with misdemeanor simple assault a month later in May, the first time the incident was made public, prompting reporters and members of the public to request access to body camera video that depicted the alleged assault.
But the Providence Police and the city’s law department declined public records requests, citing the ongoing criminal case.
Even PERA was unable to access to the video at first, only receiving it in August after issuing a subpoena through the Providence City Council. But the board viewed the video in private and opted to issue a report about the incident rather than release the video.
“The surprise to me is not that I got fired, but that I was able to last as long as I did,” Batista told 12 News in an interview after the vote. He said he has faced “fierce opposition” from the start from some board members about his police oversight philosophy, and never had confidence that the board would release the video of Hanley’s actions.
“It’s outrageous to me that a police officer who did what Sgt. Hanley did is on paid leave for six months and I’m fired within ten days of what I did,” Batista said, making reference to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Prior to the vote to fire Batista, a couple dozen members of the public testified, many criticizing the board for declining to release the video in the first place. One man compared the video to the police killing of George Floyd, which happened more than a month after the Hanley incident.
“This board has not accomplished anything — it has not resolved one case,” said Raymond Watson, one of the people who testified in favor of Batista. “What it did do was vote to not show the public a police officer beating on a handcuffed man.”
Only one person, identified just as Kristy, testified that Batista should resign for releasing the video in the way he did, though she said the video should have been made public in the first place.
PERA board members Machiste Rankin, Phanida Philvay, Kenneth Cohen, Susan DeRita, Michael Fontaine and Deborah Wray voted to fire Batista.
Board chair Nicholas Figueroa joined Elise Swearingen and Kimberly Dy in voting not to fire him.
Dy said she was “caught in a crossroads” because of Batista defying the board, but said “morally, I think what Jose did was phenomenal.”
Rankin said he was just as angry as many members of the public at police brutality, but said the board took the opinion of the city’s law department in declining to release the video publicly.
“The reason people voted to not show the video was because of the instruction that was given to us by the city law department,” Rankin said. “If we’re going to hold the police accountable, we can’t act like them.”
In a previous meeting, some board members criticized Batista for floating a hypothetical suggestion that the attorney general drop the charge against Hanley so that the video could be released — the ongoing prosecution was the cited reason it couldn’t be — and then charge him again later.
He was also criticized by some for not having resolved any civilian complaints since taking the job as executive director, for taking an adjunct position teaching a legal studies course at Bryant University, and for running for office.
“I was not a perfect executive director, I don’t know all the answers,” Batista said Monday night. But he added that the main reason no civilian complaints have been closed was because of stonewalling by the police department and police union, either in the mediation process or in providing records for PERA to conduct an investigation.
PERA was created in 2002 but was dormant until 2008, after the City Council passed the Providence Community-Police Relations Act. The nine-member panel hired Batista as the executive director in January 2019 with a salary of $92,000, and he in turn hired two consultants to serve as an investigator and mediator.
Batista said after his firing he would return all equipment and records pertaining to ongoing investigations to PERA. It was not immediately clear when the board would begin the process of hiring his replacement.
He said he would “let the dust settle” before deciding whether to go back into private law practice or pursue another career path, but added he is “ecstatic” about serving in the House of Representatives come January, including the ability to make political statements without being criticized by the board.
Batista also tweeted a brief message to a couple dozen members of the community who had testified in his defense before the vote: “Your testimony tonight brought tears to my eyes. I love you. And I will never stop fighting for you.”
Hanley has pleaded not guilty to the assault charge and is also facing termination by the city, pending a hearing under the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.