‘It was a challenging situation’: Providence police explain use of pepper spray in Sayles Street incident


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence officials are reviewing the police response to a neighborhood dispute that has members of the community outraged.

On Thursday, the police department released body camera footage of Tuesday’s incident on Sayles Street. Residents said pepper spray was used on the crowd, which they claim included children as young as a year old, while some people were forcibly arrested and shoved in the back of police cruisers.

The people involved are demanding a public apology from the Providence Police Department and want the officers to be held accountable for their actions.

While the investigation continues, Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements said Friday that pepper spray “was used according to policy” since the crowd had become hostile.

He also noted that the neighborhood in question has been a problem for police in the past, with officers having been called there more than three dozen times in the last year and a half, including three times on the night in question.

An individual who was at the scene Thursday sent 12 News cell phone video which shows officers yelling at the residents and hitting some of them with batons. One officer could be seen pepper-spraying the crowd as officers attempted to detain someone on the sidewalk behind him.

In the body camera video, police can be heard discussing the situation, which they believed to be a feud between at least two households. Several of the residents can also be heard cursing at the officers as well as at one another throughout the ordeal.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said they won’t comment on whether they believe appropriate force was used until the investigation is complete, but added that there was no excuse for the language heard in the footage.

Paré said the claims that children were beaten are “inaccurate,” and also responded to calls to defund the police.

“Abolishing the police is not an option in this country,” he said, adding that police were called to this incident because of complaints made by members of the community.

Clements said the entire incident lasted about three hours. The first call came in around 6:06 p.m. and police made several attempts to deescalate and defuse the situation.

According to the chief, the situation was under control until around 7:30 p.m. when a female from one home walked into the street toward the other home and threw a bottle, which enraged a younger woman who was upset because her mother had been jumped. The younger woman went to run toward the other home but police quickly grabbed her and placed her under arrest, Clements said.

Then, around 8 p.m., Clements said every cruiser in the city responded to the neighborhood. One officer’s body-worn camera fell off and when he went to retrieve it, someone was standing on top of it, so the officer pushed the person aside to get the camera, according to Clements.

Five people were arrested on charges including disorderly conduct, assaulting a police officer, and resisting arrest. The scene was clear by about 9 p.m.

Clements told 12 News on Thursday that this was not the first time police were called to that neighborhood for a disturbance.

“I will tell you, we’ve been to that house in the last year and a half 42 times,” he said.

When asked about why police pepper-sprayed the residents, Clements said they were using it to create distance between them and the crowd, which had become hostile, as they were making an arrest.

“It was used according to policy. When verbal direction, hands-on technique control cause by officers fail or are likely to fail, it’s authorized to use OC when the officer could reasonably use an impact weapon as a striking tool it’s authorized to use when OC would be an effective, safe and quick form to deescalate resistance,” Clements explained.

“What happens oftentimes is when we move in to make an arrest, we try to extract an individual from the group, and then the crowd might encroach and try to interfere in that arrest. We’ve seen that often,” he continued.

Mayor Jorge Elorza said he saw two things in the released footage: officers arriving professionally and working to deescalate the situation, but also officers using inappropriate language and exacerbating the situation.

“There’s some stuff that I’ve seen and I’ve heard in those videos that fall way short of the professionalism and the standards that we set for ourselves,” Elorza said. “There are comments that instead of deescalating a situation, which is our policy, actually escalates the situation and there are some comments that I saw that are just unacceptable.”

The mayor said there will be a full investigation and the officers who are found to have acted inappropriately and unprofessionally will be held accountable. He also said that all of the video footage will be made public in the coming days.

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