PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence police leaders now acknowledge they were caught “flatfooted” on the night of June 1, 2020, when downtown plunged into chaos and violence that resulted in the torching of a cruiser and the ransacking of the Providence Place mall.
In a wide-ranging interview about that night and its aftermath, Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré recalled the moment when hundreds of rioters pushed their way toward the mall. Feeling that his officers “were overwhelmed by the numbers,” police leaders had to quickly request help from surrounding cities and towns as well as the Rhode Island and Massachusetts state police.
“We were a bit flatfooted,” Pare told Target 12. “Though we had a dozen or two Providence police officers held over and prepared … when you have 300, 400 people and they’re going to storm the mall or any facility, you need to be ready with more than a couple dozen.”
The chaos lasted for hours. A police timeline of that night noted conditions devolved into violence around 11 p.m., continuing until 4 a.m. the next morning.
Story continues after timeline
The episode completely reshaped how city police would handle and prepare for protests moving forward in a turbulent year for policing and race relations across the country.
Col. Hugh Clements said the department conducted an after-action report following the riot, and there were “many” lessons they took away.
“After that event we’ve probably had 60-plus demonstrations, rallies, protests – some have been contentious, some have been riotous,” Clements said. “We learned to prepare ourselves better, for our underlying mission, which is to protect life and property in this community.”
Protests erupted nationwide following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, by a Minneapolis police officer.
On the Saturday after Floyd’s killing – two days before the riot – Providence saw a peaceful, organized demonstration. Thousands of protestors descended on the State House and marched through the city holding signs that read “I can’t breathe.” At one point hundreds of people laid motionless in the street outside the mall for nine-and-a-half minutes, the length of time Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was pressed against Floyd’s neck.
Yet as dusk fell the following Monday, the mood in the city turned markedly different.
“We had some intelligence about protests and also a potential event,” Paré said. “We got through the day with it not happening, and then there was a flash mob of 300, 400 kids.”
The day after the riot, then-Gov. Gina Raimondo said those who stormed the mall and vandalized the city were from out of state, citing information provided by the state police.
“You make no mistake about it,” Raimondo said at a June 2 news conference. “Those plates coming in from other states that drove across our border who came here with crowbars and gasoline were not here because they care about ending racism in our community.”
But Paré now says that didn’t turn out to be true.
“Because we know the 65 people we arrested, all but five were from the state of Rhode Island and half were from Providence,” Paré said.
“It did happen in a quick and organic way,” Clements added. “There was prodding by a small group to enter the mall, and then the mob mentality took over.”
A police report following the incident stated that “approximately 100 people broke into the Providence Place Mall where windows were smashed and over a dozen stores were looted.”
Brother Gary Dantzler, the head of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, denounced the violence in the days following the riot.
But looking back at those events this month, Dantzler said he understands why it happened. He cited “years of oppression,” particularly at the hands of police.
“We kind of predicted this was going to happen,” Dantzler said. “We have a big problem about policing in this country so when George Floyd came … we were waiting for this day.”
“Unfortunately they did it with the blood of George Floyd,” he added.
‘Let the car go’
A Target 12 review of court records shows that of the 65 people arrested that night, only one person served any prison time: 10 days, and that was only because the defendant was out on probation at the time and was sentenced as a violator.
The majority of the charges included disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, breaking and entering and receiving stolen goods. Several cases are still pending, but many arrested that night were given what’s called a “one-year filing,” which usually means the charges will be dismissed if the defendant stays out of trouble for a year.
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said there is no state charge for inciting a riot – unless it occurs in a prison – but there is a federal statute. However, no one was ever charged with that crime.
There are more serious charges pending in federal court, though, involving the torching of a Providence police cruiser – arguably the most memorable image from the night of June 1.
Paré said police leaders decided in the moment to “let the car go.”
“That was symbolic for them and aggravating for our police officers. They just had greater numbers than we had for us to protect that patrol vehicle, and it wasn’t worth someone getting hurt over,” Pare said. “It wasn’t a popular decision because our Providence police officers wanted to protect that vehicle.”
“We knew they were going to torch it,” he added.
Destroying a police vehicle is a federal crime, and the FBI was called in to find those responsible for the destruction of Providence police vehicle number 708, a 2018 Ford Explorer Police Interceptor.
Court records show agents reviewed video on social media and interviewed several unnamed witnesses to identify two men they allege were responsible for the crime: Nicholas Scaglione, 31, of Cranston, and Luis Joel Sierra, 34, of Providence.
Both were charged with “attempted malicious destruction of a vehicle by fire,” a crime that comes with a potential maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
12 News video shows a man matching the description of Scaglione in court documents. The individual is seen dousing the driver’s seat of the police cruiser with what investigators say was lighter fluid. Prosecutors said Sierra did the same.
Scaglione has pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in June, while Sierra has pleaded not guilty.
FBI agents were able to obtain text messages they say Scaglione sent a friend following the incident. “That was pent up years of rage and frustration with the way I’ve seen and been treated by police,” he wrote. “That cop car can be replaced. People’s lives cannot.”
Asked if he thinks police themselves bear responsibility for what happened that night, Paré said, “No, I don’t.”
“I can see out of their lens … Floyd happened, and other uses of force that were horrific,” he said. “We denounced Floyd. It makes us cringe as police officers that this would happen. I understand the pain.”
But Black Lives Matters’ Dantzler disagrees that law enforcement played no role in the violence on June 1, pointing to the decades of frustration that erupted in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
“I just think that people are tired,” he said. “Black and white people are real tired right now. It’s not about Black people, it’s about being oppressed.” He added, “I think it was overdue with Providence – Providence hasn’t seen that in years.”
Early on the night of June 1, Paré was driving through the city assessing the situation when a brick smashed through the rear window of his cruiser.
The night went on to become so chaotic that he forgot about the brick until he found the projectile in the back seat of his vehicle after the window had been replaced. It now sits on his desk at police headquarters.
“I put it on my desk as a reminder of that night and how angry people were at police,” Paré said.
Among other findings from the department’s post-mortem of the riot: police leaders discovered some face shields that were purchased to protect officers from projectiles did not actually fit on their helmets – which played a role in the decision not to confront those intent on destroying cruiser 708.
But both Paré and Clements said their main takeaway was the lack of staffing going into the evening of June 1. Police responded to 225 calls for service that night, according to data from the department, including 72 calls for business alarms and 40 calls for breaking and entering.
Despite that, Clements does not think the department let the city down.
“But for the leadership, the brave actions of the men and women of Providence police, I think the city of Providence would have looked considerably different the next morning and the days to come,” Clements said. “Way worse.”
Photo Credit: Images and video of the riot were captured by 12 News videographers Wyatt Fisher, Merrill Sampson, Ryan Welch, John Villella and Corey Welch.