WOONSOCKET — Three police officers may be fired on administrative charges stemming from the 2009 beating of a 16-year-old boy — a highly publicized incident which already ended the career of another policeman who went to federal prison for assault.
City and police officials declined to confirm this information, but the head of the Woonsocket police union said all three were served with termination notices over a week ago.
Detective Sgt. John Scully, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO) Local 404 said all are expected to fight the non-criminal, departmental charges under the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. That law gives them the right to contest the charges during an evidentiary hearing before a three-member panel of police officers that will decide, ultimately, whether the terminations are justified.
Scully said he does not know the basis for the department's case, but the officers are entitled to representation from IBPO lawyers. Two will accept union counsel, he said, while another has hired a private lawyer.
“To say this is excessive, we don't know, because we don't know what the evidence is,” said Scully. “Nobody's saying a word about this case at this point.”
Scully declined to identify the officers involved, but law enforcement sources said they were Patrolman Irwin Harris, 41, Patrolman Michael Flood, 32; and Patrolwoman Linden Karsner, 27. Harris has worked for the department 11 years, Flood, six, and Karsner, five.
In addition to the three terminations, the department is seeking suspensions or lesser sanctions against several other police officers on administrative charges stemming from the same investigation by the department's internal affairs bureau.
The case revolves around the Sept. 15, 2009 beating of a boy at police headquarters following a foot chase in World War II Veterans Memorial State Park.
Then-Chief Family Court Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah asked Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Carey to investigate after the boy appeared before him in court with the bruised imprint of a foot on his back and other visible injuries, including a severely swollen eye resulting from broken facial bones.
The FBI entered the probe after headlines about the incident captured the attention of the Providence chapter of the NAACP, which called for a civil rights investigation.
Patrolman John H. Douglas, a Blackstone, Mass., resident who had worked for the department about seven years, was later indicted on a charge of willful deprivation of civil rights resulting in bodily injury — a federal assault charge.
He was also charged with one count of obstruction for allegedly attempting to coerce false testimony about the assault from another police officer.
The latter was later dismissed when Douglas — by then fired from the force — agreed to plead guilty to the assault charge. In December 2010, however, U.S. District Chief Judge Mary Lisi sentenced Douglas to a year in prison, plus six months' home confinement, with electronic monitoring, following his release from federal custody.
For a time, Douglas, now 36, was held at a detention facility in Kentucky. The federal Bureau of Prisons Web site, however, says he is now in a community halfway house. A spokeswoman for the BOP said that means Douglas has a work release job but she declined to identify the location of the facility.
The father of two is scheduled to complete his sentence on Nov. 17.
During his sentencing hearing, federal prosecutors said Douglas and two other unidentified Woonsocket police officers escorted the juvenile into a hallway at the Clinton Street police lockup on the night of the assault. There, they said, Douglas directed another officer to remove the boy's handcuffs, then repeatedly punched and kicked the youth while he was still in leg irons.
The precise nature of the allegations facing Harris, Flood and Karsner are unknown. Citing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, neither Police Chief Carey nor Mayor Leo T. Fontaine would discuss the case.
The law is designed to protect the confidentiality of police officers accused of wrongdoing – at least until the case is completely resolved, said Carey.
“You have to hold people accountable for their actions and sometimes the only way to hold people accountable for their actions is through the disciplinary process,” said the chief, speaking in general terms about the bill of rights. “If people call the police department to make a complaint about the conduct of a police officer, we will investigate it.”
Lawyer Thomas Laren, who represented the victim at the time of the assault, said the police reports he saw did not appear to implicate any of the newly named police officers in physically assaulting the boy. But Laren said a key component of the case was that the reports had been falsified to cover up the true cause of the boy's injuries.
“I'm surprised that only one person was arrested,” Laren said in a phone interview.
Laren, who now works for the public defender's office, no longer represents the youth, but he said another lawyer is pursuing civil damages from the city on his behalf.
Out of an abundance of caution, Fontaine said he wouldn't comment, or even officially acknowledge, any pending disciplinary proceeding. He said he would double-check with City Solicitor Joseph Carroll, but Fontaine said he's been advised that the policeman's bill or rights forbids public comment on pending cases unless the officer involved waives his or her privacy privileges.
Under the statute, the charges must be weighed by a three-member panel of police officers. One panelist is chosen by the target of the investigation, another by the police chief and a third by mutual consent of the parties. If the two sides cannot agree on the third member, the so-called “neutral” must be appointed by Chief Superior Court Judge Paul A. Suttell.