Competing narratives emerged from dueling press conferences about an incident in the streets of South Providence on June 29. By 6pm, scorching temperatures had cooled only slightly from the afternoon high of 97 degrees, breaking a record that had stood since 1934. On Sayles Street between Searle and Cahill streets, two blocks west of Eddy Street, people had opened a fire hydrant so children could cool off in the water. Two families in neighboring houses at 260 and 264, separated by a few dozen feet of grassy yard, were part of this impromptu street party.
The residents of 260 Sayles St held a press conference July 1, alleging that police overreacted to 14 year olds having an argument, with the police themselves escalating a situation over the course of several hours that resulted in children as young as 1 year old being exposed to pepper spray, beaten to point of injury, and detained in total darkness inside police vans without air conditioning. Witnesses said they counted 18 police cars, two vans used to detain and transport arrestees, and fire and rescue apparatus.
The City of Providence held a press conference July 2, where Mayor Jorge Elorza, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Police Chief Hugh Clements portrayed the police response as professional, although the matter is still under investigation. According to Clements, police responded initially to a noise complaint but had to return, eventually leading to a major incident where at least one officer activated their personal “officer needs assistance” alarm, directing every available police officer to the scene, at least 35 officers in this case.
On July 1, the city publicly released an hour-long video taken from the body-worn camera of one of the responding officers. That video recorded comments from some of the police officers talking among themselves, making unprofessional comments that betrayed racist and anti-LGBTQ prejudice. At one point, an officer is heard saying, “We’re out here all summer with these two houses. They hate each other. It’s the Spanish against the Blacks.” The same officer then describes one of the people as a “shemale,” a derogatory slur to describe someone with male genitalia trying to appear female, saying, “I told you, that’s the one I wanted to go [be arrested] the most, the one in the black there that has the man haircut that they said, ‘Oh, it’s a girl,” and I said, ‘She ain’t a girl.’” Later on, he says, “I don’t wanna hear it. All animals.” Remarks are captured of officers criticizing the fire department for being slow to respond and criticizing the police dispatcher as an “idiot” and “moron.” At one point, an officer challenges a 14 year old, “You wanna fuckin’ fight me, kid?” A few minutes before the end of that video recording, the officers say they hope they “don’t look bad,” but by then it is way too late.
Two additional body cam videos were released by the city on July 2, with a promise that they are working to redact private information so that the estimated 25 body cam videos can be released as soon as possible.
At the city’s press conference, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza acknowledged at least the public relations problem resulting from the body cam video. “I’ve reviewed some of the tapes myself, and I’ve seen what’s out there publicly, and I’m reviewing the video that we released yesterday. Now what I saw are two things. On the one hand, we see officers that arrived, who act professionally and de-escalate the situation. But you also see several instances of officers who use inappropriate language, did not de-escalate the situation, and certainly did not reflect the police department that we strive to be.” Elorza promised, “We will do is we’ll do a full investigation. And any officer or anyone on the scene, who acted inappropriate, who acted unprofessional, or did not comply with our stated goal of de-escalating situations is going to be held accountable.”
Taffii Moore, who said she is the resident of 260 Sayles St and was the principal speaker at the Thursday press conference, said that police arrived at the scene with an unnecessarily confrontational attitude, saying they lined up in the street facing the house “like ‘we will get ready for war.’” She said, “When they attacked us, they attacked our children, they attacked everybody that was in this home. If you were recording, they attacked. They pepper sprayed. My son is who is 14 years old, Rashad, was protecting his cousin, Juan, from being beat by the police. They then pulled out their baton: beat him; five, six police officers at a time beat him. I have my neighbors in houses saying, ‘You know, why are you beating them? Why are you beating them?’ You know, trying. They pepper sprayed with my grandkids sitting on the porch.”
According to the police report, people on the street began fighting with each other, and when police tried to arrest them, the crowd began fighting with the police trying to prevent the arrests, and “the crowd followed and attempted to interfere with Ptlm. Benros, who deployed [pepper spray] as a defensive measure. Lt. Barros then ordered the crowd to back up as they continued their threatening behaving and ignored commands as he issued a short burst of pepper spray to create distance for the officers who were wrestling on the ground in a vulnerable position. It was at this time that several police officers had to use their department issued pepper spray, due to the large size of the crowd, as well as the crowd becoming threatening towards police.” The use of pepper spray “to create distance” as described in the police report, effectively dispersing it into a wide area without any specific threatening target, is questionable at best, especially in the presence of so many children.
Moore continued, “We sat right here on our property and bothered nobody. They came up in this yard. They dragged one of the young ladies out of the yard, not hitting nobody, not having no weapons, slammed her against the paddy wagon, threw her on the paddy wagon. They had their knees in my daughter’s face, beating and punching her, yelling at her that she was a man, as we were telling her she’s not a man, she’s a woman. They still didn’t care. They still beat on her. They beat on my son who was ill. Beat him with batons on his back.… My 1-year-old grandson was sprayed, my 5-year-old granddaughter was pepper sprayed, and they were looking right at her pepper-spraying. Didn’t even care that there was children.”
Moore’s daughter Zyrray, age 21, was the only adult among the five arrestees; she was charged with assaulting a police officer. She appears to have been the person referred to on the body cam video by a police officer as a “shemale.” At the press conference, she recounted her experience of being detained in a police van with no light and no air, despite the oppressive heat, as her juvenile family members were put in the van with her. “It was a pretty crazy situation. Just us trying to be protective of our young ones and my family…. [The police are] taught for crowd control and they’re… ready to be aggressive and just trying to pretty much arrest everybody down to the kids.… I had got punched in the face by several officers. I’m trying to explain to them like, ‘You guys. I’m not resisting arrest. There’s no reason for you guys to have your feet in my neck, on top of me, stuff like that.’ They put me inside the van. And as I’m inside the van, I still hear everything going on outside, I can’t see. There was no lights, there’s no air. And then I hear them putting my cousin and my other cousin in the van. And they’re just crying, they can’t see… and me being the oldest I’m trying to keep them calm, trying to sing music, do something, because of everything they’ve been through and we’ve been through, it’s a lot.”
Zyrray said she was pleading for air. “We’re yelling, we’re screaming… just open the door. You don’t even gotta turn on the AC, it’s hot, just open the door. You wouldn’t leave a dog in the friggin’ car for 20 minutes. We’re getting arrested. It has been there for over an hour, yelling and screaming, just ‘Open the door, open the door’… You can see on the videos, one of the officers is sitting in the back of the van as we’re banging on it. He was laughing [with other police officers] and talking to each other and just conversing like we’re not in the back of that van with our eyes burning, they want to give us no medical attention..”
At the city press conference, Pare conceded that the police vans have no air conditioning in the back, but denied that anyone was confined in them for longer than 30 minutes and said that no one was denied medical attention.
The Moore family has received death threats as a result of their press conference, Motif was told, and there are websites blogging about the incident using numerous racial slurs and providing personal identifying information about the adults involved.
Clements said that police responded 42 times over the past 18 months to these addresses on Sayles Street. Motif asked both Pare and Clements whether this might itself have been indicative of a failure of policing, inducing a kind of frustration and fatigue that was ultimately going to blow up in some kind of incident as finally happened.
We asked Pare, “If the police are called to the scene 42 times over the course of 18 months, is there any city service that could be provided, other than law enforcement, to try to deal with that?” Pare answered, “Without examining each and every call to that address, it’s hard for me to say. They weren’t calling the police because they needed food or shelter, they were calling because there was a public safety issue, and we respond when people call for the police on a public safety issue.” We followed up, “The city has a big effort to deal with gang violence, to try to intervene in a preventative way. Is there something the city could have done other than what has been done?” Pare answered, “I don’t know of any other service that we could have plugged in to prevent the repeated calls. I think a part of this is a feud in the neighborhood among neighbors, that we get called because there’s feuding, there’s loud music, there’s allegations of assault and those kinds of things.” We continued, “If you had gangs feuding you have a process for that, you have people for that.” Pare said, “Right, and this isn’t gang related.”
We asked Clements the same question, “Is there anything other than a police response that the city had available on social services to respond to that situation?” Clements answered, “That’s a very good question. Had clinicians or street workers been on the scene could we have had a different outcome? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. This was pretty tense, these two families were very agitated with each other, and they really wanted to get to each other. So to answer your question, I think at the end of the day it’s a police response.” We asked, “The city has an effective program and has for years: If this was a feud between gangs, which I understand it wasn’t, there are resources you have to deal with that. But in a feud between families, it seems you’ve got nothing.” Clements answered, “Correct. I don’t believe there was a constant family feud going on – but were that the case, there was certainly opportunity to use some form of mediation between the families, or maybe the police introduce that model and then step out. So, yes, that’s a possibility.”
At the Sayles Street press conference, a neighbor from across the street who identified herself only by her first name, “Linda,” provided an eyewitness account that raised an intriguing possibility the police may have made a classic tactical error that in military situations almost always leads to disaster. “The sergeant who was getting in front of my garage yelled to his police officers, ‘Get him.’ And six police officers ran after, ran in the yard. And all of the mothers were like, ‘Please, my son, don’t bother my son, he’s just a teenager.’ And so the police couldn’t get to him. So the sergeant ran to the back, came around the back side here, and pushed everybody out into the street. And he actually pushed everyone into the other police. So the police were acting like they were being attacked, but it was actually the sergeant who invaded everyone’s personal space and pushed them into the street. And when [the boy] got pushed into the street, he was the target. And so four policemen came after him.” (It should be noted that Linda may be in error about the “sergeant” because she said she knew he was of higher rank because he was wearing a white shirt, but in Providence that would indicate a lieutenant or above.)
What may have happened was that the police failed to coordinate properly, so one phalanx of police moved toward the children from the street while another phalanx of police went around the house and moved toward the children from the opposite direction. That could have led each police phalanx to assume the children were charging them, although each police phalanx was pushing the children toward the other phalanx, which each phalanx interpreted as hostile action. That’s a classic military disaster that usually results in death by friendly fire. No shots were fired by anyone, but it would explain the strange near-panic the police seemed to exhibit.
Press conference, July 1, with Sayles Street residents: facebook.com/motifri/videos/1147054699105481/
Press conference, July 2, with City of Providence: facebook.com/motifri/videos/163628802488366/
Police body-worn cameras: providenceri.gov/police/ppd-video-release-62921/