WPRI.com

Providence officer charged with assaulting political rival at abortion rally

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence police officer and Republican political candidate is facing charges after he allegedly assaulted his Democratic opponent outside the Rhode Island State House Friday night, in an incident that has quickly drawn national attention.

The Providence Police Department announced that Patrolman Jeann Lugo — who had been running for state Senate — was arrested, charged and arraigned Saturday afternoon at the Lincoln barracks of the Rhode Island State Police. The department had placed him on paid leave earlier in the day.

Police said Lugo, 35, was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct and released on personal recognizance. He will be arraigned again on July 8.

Lugo is a three-year veteran of the force and was off duty at the time, according to police. The incident remains under investigation.

“We want to thank the members of the public who have come forward to report these incidents [and] we encourage anyone who has additional information to contact the police,” Providence Police Col. Hugh Clements said in a statement.

Rhode Island Political Cooperative co-founder Jennifer Rourke, one of Lugo’s Democratic opponents for a state Senate seat in Warwick, said he attacked her during a brawl that broke out Friday on Smith Hill as hundreds of people gathered to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Tensions appeared to reach a boiling point when counter-protestors entered the crowd and began shouting. The Rhode Island State Police confirmed two people were arrested: Jessica Burton, 39, and Nicholas Morrell, 31, both Warwick residents.

Footage captured by radio and podcast host Bill Bartholomew shows a man who appears to be Lugo punching Rourke in the face.

According to a police report, Rourke told officers she was attempting “to keep the peace” at the rally when she was struck twice in the head, then turned and saw someone she said she recognized as Lugo punching her a third time. She said Lugo “did not say a word and just fled after the third punch.”

“This is what it is to be a Black woman running for office,” Rourke wrote in a social media post that quickly went viral as national news outlets reported on the alleged assault. “I won’t give up.”

(Story continues below video.)

In a statement to 12 News, Lugo said he was “in a situation that no individual should see themselves in” Friday night.

“I stepped in to protect someone that a group of agitators was attacking,” he said in a statement.

Lugo had been seeking the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, but recently announced he would end that campaign in order to support a different candidate, Aaron Guckian. 

Lugo said he would instead seek the seat currently held by Senate Majority Leader Mike McCaffrey, D-Warwick. He said he was motivated by outrage over the steps Senate leaders took to enact a new ban on higher-capacity gun magazines. (Rourke is challenging McCaffrey in the Democratic primary.)

“Instead of promoting sound solutions to make our state more competitive by reducing unnecessary and burdensome regulations, Democrats find creative ways to capitulate to special interests that ultimately end up hurting Rhode Islanders,” Lugo said in a statement last Monday.

On Saturday afternoon, a message posted to Lugo’s Twitter account said he would no longer be seeking political office this year. The account was then deactivated.

Providence elected officials quickly weighed in.

Mayor Jorge Elorza said he was “limited in what I can say” due to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a state law that places strict limits on statements about any officers under investigation.

“With that said, I’ve seen the video and it’s immensely disturbing,” Elorza tweeted. “Those responsible will be held fully accountable.”

The candidates running to succeed Elorza as mayor also spoke out.

“It’s unfortunate that an otherwise peaceful protest was disrupted with this act of violence,” said Brett Smiley. “I’m glad that the Providence Police acted quickly and I hope that Jennifer recovers quickly.”

Gonzalo Cuervo called the video of Lugo “sickening and unacceptable,” and said the police department should “take immediate disciplinary action” to “fire him.”

Another mayoral hopeful, Nirva LaFortune, wrote: “This is unacceptable and this type of behavior/violence will not be tolerated.”

Kim Kalunian and Amanda Pitts contributed to this report.