PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said Tuesday a police officer will be disciplined for not turning on his body camera during an encounter with a Providence firefighter earlier this month, but said an internal investigation did not find any signs of racial profiling.
Speaking to reporters via Zoom, Paré said while the encounter could have been handled better by the officers, he does not believe it was racially motivated.
Paré released a one-minute video from the body camera of Officer Nathaniel Colicci, the second officer on the scene, who quickly holstered his gun and turned his camera off after realizing Terrell Paci was a firefighter, leaving to seek suspects in an armed robbery.
But Paré said Officer Matthew Sandorse, the first officer to arrive who also stayed to search the car after Colicci left, did not activate his camera as required during any part of the encounter.
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The incident comes at a time when the actions of police officers against black people are being closely scrutinized following the death of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn thousands to the streets protesting police brutality.
Firefighter Terrell Paci, 23, was one of about 10,000 people who marched to the State House in Providence on June 5, demanding racial equality.
In a live interview on WPRI 12 during the protest, Paci fought back tears as he read a prepared speech of being confronted by the two officers — one white and one black — who had their guns drawn, while sitting in a red car outside the Messer Street fire station. He said he was on duty and a friend had driven to the station to bring him food.
Despite being in uniform and identifying himself as a city firefighter, Paci said the officers questioned him if he had a gun and searched his friend’s vehicle. He said a sergeant later stopped by the fire station to apologize.
“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing,” Paci said during the interview.
(Watch the video from June 5. Story continues below.)
The head of the Providence Firefighters Union IAFF Local 799 quickly backed Paci up, writing in a statement that Paci was profiled.
“This situation makes clear that even in uniform, a young black man is not immune from the impact of systemic, institutional racism,” Derek Silva said at the time. The police union quickly fired back, accusing Paci of trying to “grab a headline,” and calling Silva “opportunistic.”
On Tuesday, Paré said Paci was just “in the wrong place at the wrong time” after an alleged armed robbery on Cranston Street, where a victim reported to police that two possibly Hispanic men in a red car brandished a handgun and knife, demanding money from him and a friend. The two victims fled the scene and called police.
According to a police report, no make, model or plate was known for the car, but once officers spoke to the victim he pointed to a car outside the Messer Street station and said it might be the same one involved.
That’s when the officers converged on the red car in which Paci and his friend were sitting. Sandorse — the white officer — arrived first, pointing his gun at the driver’s side door, according to police. Colicci pulled up to the scene next, with his body camera activated, and approached the car with his gun drawn.
Paci is seen showing his firefighter radio to the officer, which he said he did because it was on his hip and might’ve been mistaken for a gun.
“I got out and made sure I had my radio visible,” Paci said on June 5. “It could easily resemble a gun, and they can easily just pull the trigger and say ‘oh, I had mistaken that as a gun.'”
In the body camera video, Colicci orders Paci to open the door while pointing his gun at it. Paci first says he is a police officer, quickly correcting himself to repeatedly say he is a firefighter. (Paré chalked the comment up to nerves, while Colicci said during an interview in the internal investigation that he was initially concerned Paci was impersonating an officer.)
In the video, Paci is seen holding out his radio and starting to get out of the car. Colicci orders him to stay in the car, still pointing his firearm. Paci is seen wearing a Providence Fire Department shirt and holding out his Fire Department hat in addition to the radio.
“I’m a [expletive] firefighter,” Paci says. Colicci holsters his gun, and turns off the body camera as Paci continues talking to Sandorse, who is heard saying “I apologize” before the video ends.
The rest of the encounter is not recorded. Paci said he was questioned about the city curfew and whether he had a gun, to which he responded that the curfew did not apply to him as a firefighter, and he was not permitted to carry a weapon while on duty. Sandorse then asked to search the car, and Paci’s friend — the car’s owner — consented. Paci said only his side of the vehicle was searched.
Paré said the officers did not racially profile Paci, since they were responding to seeing the red car and not the people in it.
“They were drawn to the car because of the description of the car, so the answer is no, there was no racial profiling because they didn’t know who was in the car,” he said.
He added that “better discretion” might have been used during the encounter, especially in the decision to search the car once the officers determined these were not the suspects they were looking for. But he said Sandorse did not break protocols other than failing to record the incident with his body camera.
“He was lawful in asking,” Paré said of the search. “Any police officer can ask for a search, but I believe both training and better judgment would have resulted differently if it was exercised.”
“I think it was a bit insensitive and it could’ve been handled differently,” Paré said. But he said Sandorse would not be disciplined for the way he handled the case, only for not activating his body camera. The punishment has not yet been determined, but Paré said it would likely involve sensitivity training.
Paré, who oversees both the police and fire departments, called it an “unfortunate incident” and said he has spoken to Paci multiple times and apologized for what happened. He also said Paci was not doing anything wrong at the time.
Following Tuesday’s new developments, Paci told WPRI 12 he stands by what he said during the rally, and thanked Paré for understanding what happened to him was traumatic.
“Whether I was a firefighter, whether I was black, whether I was white, whether I was Hispanic, it shouldn’t have happened,” Paci said.
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He questioned why Sandorse did not turn his camera on, noting that it leaves people to either take his word or the officer’s about how the interaction went.
When the cameras were first introduced in 2016, the Rhode Island ACLU was among those opposing the policy that allows officers to manually activate the cameras on a call. (The cameras are constantly running on a 30-second buffer, so the 30 seconds before an officer “double taps” the camera to activate gets recorded, but does not have audio.)
When asked if he thinks the incident would’ve played out differently if he was white, Paci replied: “I can’t say that for a fact whether or not it would’ve changed because of my skin color, but I know that because of my skin color, I didn’t feel as comfortable in the situation.”
The new developments have further inflamed the war of words between the police union and fire union. The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #3 sent a statement saying their officers were “vindicated” by the video, while the firefighters union contends the video confirms Paci’s account.
“What our concerns were was that a young, innocent black man had a gun pulled on him and that no one took the time to apologize and really explain to him what had occurred that evening,” Silva said.
In a further statement Tuesday evening, the fire union said the police union owed Paci an apology for attacking his character.
“As a young black man, his perspective is very different than that of the Providence Police Union, the statement read. “That’s what needs to be acknowledged.”
But the police union demanded an apology for the two officers, contending they did nothing wrong other than “one officer’s forgetfulness” in not turning on his body camera.
“They are both fine young men and represented our Police Department well,” the statement continued. “They both deserve better than the false allegations which have been cast on them, and they both surely deserve better than to have their Police Commissioner not publicly 100% support them as he should.”