PROVIDENCE — Attorney General Peter Neronha on Wednesday announced that the Providence County Grand Jury reported that no criminal charges were warranted in connection with the incident outside of the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility on Aug. 14 in which protesters were struck by a pick-up truck driven by a prison captain and prison guards deployed pepper spray on the picketers.
Neronha described the investigation by prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office, the Rhode Island State Police, and Central Falls Police Department as “extremely thorough,” saying more than 70 witnesses were interviewed, approximately 75 pieces of video footage were obtained and analyzed, and medical records were sought in connection with anyone who alleged injury as a result of the incident.
“A peaceful protest, a right enshrined in our Constitution, devolved into an extremely unfortunate incident because of several unfortunate decisions,” Neronha said during a press conference at the Attorney General’s Office in downtown Providence. “I want to be clear, none of those unfortunate decisions were made by protesters. Had the decisions been made differently, I believe that this matter could have been avoided.”
“There is much to learn from this incident and it is my hope that we will do so,” the AG added.
Because this was a grand jury investigation, under Rhode Island law, there was “relatively little that I can say with respect to what occurred before the grand jury,” Neronha said. However, he said the Grand Jury was not asked to consider charges against the protesters, saying that while some could have been arrested for peacefully blocking access to the Wyatt Detention Facility – and some expected to be arrested that night – law enforcement chose not to arrest them for that conduct.
“I did not and I do not believe that the conduct of those protesters in terms of whether charges should be brought was an appropriate matter for the Grand Jury to consider…” Neronha said. “I chose to bring this case to the Grand Jury because I believe that given the breadth of conduct here, the large number of people involved, and the potential need to use compulsory process to gain evidence in this case, the use of the Grand Jury would ensure the most thorough investigation in this matter.”
“The Grand Jury worked really hard to sort through all the testimony and evidence that was presented to them … I am sure that they had to deal with complicated legal and factual issues, including critically determining the intent of those whose conduct was within the scope of their investigation, whether that intent rose to the level of criminal misconduct,” the Attorney General added.
The reaction to the Grand Jury’s decision not to bring charges against Capt. Thomas Woodworth – who has since resigned from his post at the Wyatt after striking protesters with his pickup truck – or the Wyatt prison guards who deployed pepper spray in the immediate aftermath of the incident, was swift and overwhelmingly negative.
Tammy Brown, a Cranston resident who was at the protest at the Wyatt on Aug. 14, said she was pepper sprayed multiple times that evening. She decried the Grand Jury’s decision as “absolutely outrageous,” as she felt she and her fellow protesters were attacked as they were exercising their First Amendment right.
“The idea that you would run people over and pepper spray them is absolutely outrageous,” Brown said, adding that the Grand Jury’s decision sets a “terrible precedent,” arguing that it could now be deemed “fine” to run over peaceful protesters, giving people “carte blanche to attack.”
“It’s unbelievable, he tried to run us over with his car,” Brown said. “It’s absolutely unbelievable … Just because you didn’t agree with us does not make it OK to assault us.”
However, Brown said the decision not to charge any of the Wyatt guards will not deter her from continuing to protest the Wyatt’s housing of detainees from the southern border.
“We will be back … We’ll be at the Statehouse, we’ll be at the Wyatt … We’re not going to end this, we’re going to keep fighting for this,” Brown added.
Never Again Action, the group that organized the Aug. 14 protest, issued a statement following Neronha’s press conference, in which they said: “We are greatly disappointed that Mr. Woodworth will not be held accountable for his irresponsible, dangerous, and violent actions against peaceful protesters on August 14, nor will the officers who recklessly deployed pepper spray into the crowd that night. Yet, we are not surprised. Witnesses who testified before the grand jury, including those who were hit by the truck, reported that prosecutors focused only on the supposed ‘danger’ of unarmed protesters in an effort to justify Woodworth’s and his colleagues’ self-evidently indefensible actions. This strategy, employed by Attorney General Neronha’s prosecutors, is used repeatedly by investigators across the country probing police violence against citizens.”
Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Col. James Manni during Wednesday’s press conference said State Police took 55 statements and put in more than 500 hours of work investigating the incident.
“We’re there to protect them and to protect everyone and keep the peace and we will do the best we can and we will move forward and we will continue that mission,” Manni said.
Neronha during the press conference said his office would not hesitate to “carefully and thoroughly investigate anyone who tried to harm anyone who is peacefully protesting, whether that be a private citizen or whether that be a member of law enforcement.”
The Attorney General additionally said he recognized the disappointment from the protesters who expected charges to be brought against the Wyatt captain and guards, saying “it’s not lost on me the pain that they are in … The criminal justice system is not a perfect instrument. Sometimes it is a blunt instrument, it’s not a scalpel. There can be conduct which objectively is wrong, but yet doesn’t rise to the level of criminal misconduct.”
As for the feeling from protesters who said that they can no longer trust law enforcement in the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision, Neronha said that is not a “new feeling” for him or others in the profession, but rather one he knows “exists out there.”
“I’ve been aware of it when I was as in federal service and I think one of the reasons why I place such an emphasis on getting out into the community is to try to overcome that lack of trust. I think that’s a real problem for us in law enforcement. It’s not an easy issue to solve and I understand how today doesn’t help in that regard, but I’m committed” to trying to make that relationship better, he said.
In response to the Grand Jury’s decision, both Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa and Central Falls Police Chief Col. Daniel Barzykowski issued statements on Wednesday afternoon.
“I want to thank Attorney General Neronha and Colonel Manni for their assistance in this investigation, but I am obviously disappointed with the results of the grand jury process,” Diossa said. “When I reached out to them after the incident and asked for their assistance, their response was immediate and positive, and I appreciate their collaboration with the Central Falls Police Department and their commitment to executing a thorough investigation. The investigators on this case spent countless hours conducting interviews and gathering evidence and I am grateful for their dedication and diligence.”
“With the Wyatt being located in our city and the City receiving no financial benefit, Central Falls is in a challenging position,” the mayor continued. “Ongoing mediation in Federal Court prevents me from providing much detail, but I will continue to work with city and state leaders to find ways to minimize the negative impacts of this facility on the life of our community.”
Barzykowski added: “We will continue to use our resources to protect those who exercise their right to assemble and speak freely in our streets. Public safety is paramount, and we will maintain order. We will continue to collaborate with our public safety partners and communicate with other involved parties to ensure safety at future gatherings.”
“Our department received a tremendous amount of encouragement from the community following this incident. I am grateful for their trust and the opportunity to serve this great city,” the police chief said.
Neronha said one of the lessons emerging from the incident outside of the Wyatt was that “we need to have a sufficient law enforcement presence when there is a protest, to protect public safety … I believe that after this incident, that lesson was learned and that subsequent protests were peaceful.”
As for the outcry regarding the lack of charges and what will be done moving forward, Neronha said: “We in law enforcement have to do a better job collectively to ensure that when people are protesting peacefully, and that is exactly what happened here, that they are safe. Now the decisions that were made are not ours alone, but it is incumbent on us in law enforcement, myself included, to make sure peaceful protesters are safe.”
“Hindsight is 20-20 … But I think we’ve all learned lessons from this matter, and going forward I hope to have better results. I hope I never have to come back here on a case like this…” he added. “All of us wish that this incident had never occurred. It’s extraordinarily unfortunate.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette