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Target 12 probe reveals police use of force almost always deemed ‘justified’ in RI

Target 12

This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will air Tuesday evening on 12 News.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Joshua Robinson heard one police officer say to another, “should we call an ambulance or throw him in the river?” he decided to fake a seizure.  

His face was so badly swollen and there was so much blood and pepper spray in his eyes that he couldn’t see what was going on around him, he said. But the Providence police officers he later accused of beating him eventually opted to send Robinson to the hospital. 

“I was just shaking profusely,” Robinson said, adding one officer noticed he was showing seizure-like symptoms. “It was horrific.” 

The 29-year-old met with Target 12 to speak publicly for the first time about his police brutality case from 2013, when one of nine arresting officers – mostly white – suspected Robinson, a Black man, of trying to swallow drugs in an attempt to hide them after a traffic stop on Eddy Street.  

A lawsuit later filed in federal court detailed how Robinson was choked, bludgeoned with a flashlight and beaten by police. During the clash, Robinson was “hog tied,” a term meaning his hands and feet were fastened behind his back, and one officer “had a knee pressed on his back,” according to court documents. 

“As I walked into the [emergency] room I could not recognize my boyfriend,” Robinson’s then-girlfriend wrote in a civilian complaint obtained by Target 12. “His eye was swollen shut and the other filled with mace.” 

Police found no drugs on the scene and a medical exam showed none in his system. Officers charged him with resisting arrest, two counts of simple assault and obstructing police, claiming it was Robinson who attacked the arresting officer.  

The Providence Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility launched an internal investigation, later concluding the use of force was justified – a decision echoed by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office and the R.I. Attorney General’s Office. 

Joshua Robinson talked publicly about the police brutality case for the first time (WPRI 12/Johnny Villella)

“The Department of Attorney General is in agreement with the Office of Professional Responsibility and will conduct no further review of this matter,” Assistant Attorney General Scott Erickson wrote in a letter at the time. 

During that review, Robinson was convicted in District Court, but the charges were eventually overturned on appeal. Robinson’s defense attorney Dawn Huntley brought forward a witness she said police had questioned but failed to mention during the first trial.  

The witness, who Huntley said helped sway the jury, told investigators that police “kicked the [expletive] out of someone,” according to the internal investigation obtained by Target 12.  

A Providence police spokesperson said the officers involved were never disciplined, citing the attorney general’s confirmation that the force was justified. 

Last September, roughly six years after he was stopped by police, Providence agreed to pay Robinson $72,500 to settle a police brutality lawsuit. 

Asked why the city settled, city spokesperson Emily Crowell said, “After consideration of the facts presented and the extensive resources that go into a trial, the city will agree to a modest settlement in some cases.”

As part of the settlement, the city and officers didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing, and on paper the force still goes down as “justified” – which is almost always the case in Rhode Island. 

“All that shouldn’t have happened that night,” Robinson said. 

Force justified

The term “use of force” is broad, but it includes actions like firing a weapon, drawing a gun, shooting a taser, pepper spraying someone in the eyes or slamming a person to the ground.

In the wake of the civil unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, Target 12 requested police use of force data from all 38 cities and towns with local departments, along with the R.I. State Police, for each of the last five years. (Exeter doesn’t have a local police department.)

Every department responded to the request, and Target 12 was able to identify at least 8,635 instances where force was used from 2015 through 2019. 

All but four were deemed justified. 

“Sounds about right,” said Col. Michael Winquist, Cranston police chief, when presented with the findings. 

“We invest a lot in the training of our police officers,” he added.  

WPRI 12/Lisa Mandarini

Winquist, in addition to running his city’s police department, is an executive board member of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, which represents police leaders across the state. 

“We do look at those very closely,” he said about use of force reports. 

Whenever police use force in any interaction with civilians, officers are supposed to file paperwork – often called “response-to-resistance” forms or “after-incident reports” – which detail their version of why the force was necessary. (The self-reported paperwork is different from civilian complaints, like the one filed by Robinson’s girlfriend in 2013, which are initiated by civilians rather than police.)

Oversight of force differs slightly across departments, but the reports are typically reviewed by at least one supervisor who determines whether any additional investigation is warranted. 

If there are red flags, a department might launch an internal investigation – like what happened with Robinson – but data shows they almost always come back with the same conclusion: force justified.  

Police Chiefs Association executive director Sid Wordell echoed Winquist’s sentiment about Rhode Island officers receiving astute training. He also underscored that force isn’t used often compared to overall arrests. 

During the last three years, Rhode Island police on average used force during 5.2% of arrests, according to a Target 12 analysis of arrest data compared to use of force reports. 

“Those numbers are extremely low,” he said. 

But advocates – including Huntley, Robinson’s attorney – argue the process is rigged in part because it starts with officers’ accounts of what happened, meaning the police involved have the power to omit or include details that favor their side of the story.

Whoever is on the receiving end of that force may not get a chance to offer their side of the story until later during legal proceedings, which may never be part of the department’s review process.  

Huntley called Target 12’s findings “outrageous and unbelievable,” adding, “This is the classic ‘fox watching the hen house.’”  

State police data also shows force is disproportionately used against people of color. From 2016 through 2019, non-Hispanic white people made up between 50% and 58% of the use of force reports, despite representing 72% of the population. 

Black people, who represent about 8% of the population, made up 10% of all reports in 2016, 30% in 2017 and 2018, and at least 27% in 2019. 

When asked about the disparity, State Police Col. James Manni deferred to the department’s annual reports.

In 2016, when the department started breaking down use of force by race, state police defended the disparity, arguing more than a third of the use of force incidents took place in Providence and Central Falls, “where the minority community makes up a greater percentage of the population compared to Statewide levels,” according to the department’s annual report. 

In 2017, the department offered no explanation. In 2018 and 2019, state police wrote, “These statistics do not demonstrate a pattern that would suggest any form of bias.” 

Huntley said she sees it differently. 

“The police need to acknowledge their racial bias and that systemic racism exists with the police department – and confront it,” she said. “You can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge.”

‘It’s just too much’ 

To cut through the question of whether officers are honest when it comes to use of force reports, some officials, including Attorney General Peter Neronha, argue body-worn cameras could offer a solution. 

Raw video and audio of police use of force could boost transparency, improve oversight and help mend a deepening chasm of mistrust between large swaths of the public and law enforcement, according to the attorney general.  

“If we can expand body cams, I think that would be a huge step forward,” Neronha said. 

In June, Neronha expanded his ability to review police use of force in Rhode Island, updating a policy that hadn’t been touched for more than a decade. 

The changes came roughly a month after the death of Floyd, but Neronha insisted his work started earlier in the year when his office received two complaints of excessive force involving police from Cranston and Providence, respectively. 

“I knew that we needed to expand this [policy],” Neronha told Target 12. “We ought to be providing guidance to every department in the state.” 

R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha (WPRI 12/Johnny Villella)

In Cranston, Officer Andrew Leonard has pleaded not guilty to accusations of beating up a suspect while in custody, according to court documents. In Providence, Sgt. Joseph Hanley is fighting allegations that he repeatedly hit a suspect in handcuffs. 

In both cases, video played a key role. 

“Once I watched the video, I realized that it needed more attention and could be possibly criminal,” Winquist said about Leonard’s alleged assault, which happened inside the police station and was captured on camera.  

In Providence, Hanley’s body camera was apparently turned on during the suspected assault, and the footage is currently part of the investigation. 

Neronha argues all police officers should wear body cameras, but Providence and Newport are currently the only two departments in the state with the equipment. Wordell said most police support the idea of wearing body cameras, but he warned cost remains a major hurdle for most departments. 

The upfront cost isn’t so bad, he explained, but maintaining the equipment – along with the footage – is an ongoing concern in many of the state’s cash-strapped municipalities. While generally supportive, Winquist also warns body cameras are not a silver bullet.  

“They have value, but you have to take them into context with [everything else]” he said.

Left to right clockwise: Sid Wordell, Tim White, Col. Michael Winquist

Police use of force captured on video has nonetheless proven a powerful catalyst in recent months, as civilian footage of Floyd’s death in May sparked nationwide protests against police and racial injustice that have sustained throughout the summer. 

For Robinson, who missed the birth of his first son while incarcerated after his 2013 arrest, the six years he spent fighting the Providence Police Department has shaped him as a person, he said. 

Today, he works overnight shifts as a baker, and is pushing his own clothing line, but he’s also been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing terrifying events. 

The killing of Floyd spurred him to come forward to share his story. But Robinson said he couldn’t bring himself to watch the video of the Minnesota police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes while he was handcuffed, lying face down on the street.  

“Me being a victim of police brutality, I can’t watch that,” he said. “It’s just too much.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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