Civil Rights

In the aftermath of the assault at the Wyatt, Central Falls Police Officers refused to take statements from witnesses and victims

“We are in Central Falls,” said the Central Falls Police Officer, “There is so much crime in this city, I don’t have time to be here all night. I will be at my next crime scene in ten minutes.” “You’re at a crime scene now!” someone said. After Wyatt Detention Facility Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth drove his car into a
Photo for In the aftermath of the assault at the Wyatt, Central Falls Police Officers refused to take statements from witnesses and victims

Published on August 19, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist

“We are in Central Falls,” said the Central Falls Police Officer, “There is so much crime in this city, I don’t have time to be here all night. I will be at my next crime scene in ten minutes.”

“You’re at a crime scene now!” someone said.

After Wyatt Detention Facility Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth drove his car into a crowd of seated protesters outside the prison, and about a dozen more correctional officers left the prison to assault the crowd with pepper spray, officers from the Central Falls Police Department arrived on the scene. To the surprise of many who were victims of the assaults or witnesses to the assaults, the Central Falls Police Department officers on the scene declined to make any arrests or take statements from many people.

In fact, so many people were dissuaded from filing a report that former State Representative Aaron Regunberg, one of the organizers of the Never Again Providence protest, was quoted by Kevin Andrade in the Providence Journal saying, “I also want to make very clear that literally dozens of us from tonight’s protest asked, clamored, demanded that the police take witness statements about the attack, and they actively refused to do so.”

Central Falls Police Department Chief, Colonel Daniel Barzykowski, denied that (though as far as I can tell, Barzykowski was not on the scene of the protest. “We asked anyone that saw anything to come to the station and file a report,” Barzykowski told the Providence Journal.

Contrary to the Chief’s assertion, I’ve spoken to many people who were dissuaded from submitting a police report. In fact, not only were people not allowed to make a report the night before, in the days after the incident, many people were turned away from the Central Falls Police Department and dissuaded once again from making any reports.

Here are some of their statements:

“On Wednesday August 14th, I witnessed a truck driven by a Correctional Officer of the Wyatt Detention Center drive into a line of protesters, collided with them, stopped, and then accelerated again into more people who had come to get him to stop and help those who may have been hurt,” writes Lauren Katherine Pothier. “Shortly after that, I was pepper sprayed by Correctional Officers that the Officer in the truck called for backup.

“After I got my sight back and the extreme pain went away, I was told I could go give my witness statement to the Central Falls Police on the scene. I was led over, on my crutch (due to an unrelated and previous ankle sprain injury) and waited with others to give my statement. The police officer closed his notebook and announced, ‘we have names and numbers, we will reach out to you if we need you to come in to give a statement.’

“‘But you didn’t get all of our names,’ one person said.

“‘Well, we can’t get all of your names. One hundred people saying the same thing isn’t helpful,’ said the Officer.

“We communicated to that officer that we wanted our statement to be heard. After a few back and forths, he said something along the lines of, ‘We are in Central Falls. There is so much crime in this city, I don’t have time to be here all night. I will be at my next crime scene in ten minutes.’

“‘You’re at a crime scene now!’ someone said.

“I then alerted Aaron Regunberg that they stopped taking statements.

“The next day, August 14th, I went to the Central Falls Police Station to give my statement. When I arrived, I was told by people there that they were no longer handing out papers to fill out the witness statements. I went to the window, and the dispatcher told me she didn’t have the papers and was just collecting names and numbers. I asked who passed out the witness papers, and she said a police officer. I told her I would like to speak with an officer, and I sat back down.

“After some time, an officer came out. It was the same officer from the night before. He begrudgingly gave us papers.

“‘Are you calling people to come here?’ he asked us.

“‘Yes,’ I said immediately. “We were not given the opportunity to deliver our statements last night so we are telling people to come now.’

“‘The officer replied something along the lines of, ‘Well people work here. This is a busy city and people work here that have a lot of stuff to do.’

“The officer left. We began filling out the forms. We were concerned because we wanted to fill out complaint forms and not witness forms, since some of us were hit by the car or pepper sprayed. But soon a Lieutenant came out to address us. He assured us these papers were going to the right place, the Attorney General investigation. He encouraged us to write as much as we needed, even bringing us extra papers. He read everything when we handed our finished papers to him. He told us that if anyone needed to come there will be people here to take written statements.

“Today, August 16th, I was called by Detective Kenneth of the Rhode Island State Police. He said he read my statement that I submitted at the station yesterday and asked me to come in to be interviewed on the record. It went very smoothly. The officers I interacted with were encouraging and helpful. I did not encounter the one cop who had repeatedly discouraged me prior. My interview covered the entire protest, from when it began, through the incident, and afterwards. During the protest we had a good relationship with the police, who were monitoring us the entire time, who blocked traffic for us as they helped us cross the road, was brought up. I also mentioned that the incident took place after the police presence left.

“In my interview I reiterated many times that the Correctional Officer was accelerating his truck in a zone that you cannot accelerate into normally, as it is guarded by a parking lot barrier bar that needs to be opened to pass through – so his goal was to hurt people. I reiterated that he made contact with people before he stopped the first time, and then accelerated more forcefully, and more aggressively into more people who had gathered around.”

“I had to camp out at the Central Falls Police Department for two hours [the day after the incident] before I could get interviewed, and they tried multiple times to get me to just leave a written statement and go home,” said one of the witnesses, who was unable to give a statement the night of the incident, and declined to be identified for this piece. “The dispatcher first told me I’d have to go to State Police headquarters to talk to the State Police, saying they weren’t at Central Falls. Then she said no Central Falls detectives were in the building and she didn’t know when they’d be back.

“When I said I’d wait, the dispatcher made a call and then told me a detective would be down in ‘a couple minutes.’

“20 minutes later, a Central Falls detective comes and again tries to get me to leave a written statement and wait for them to call me if they have questions. I say I would rather speak in person. He agreed, saying he’s waiting on the state detective and they’ll come get me when they’re ready.

“I went ahead and wrote up a statement while I waited. The state detective comes down and reads it, sees that I was directly hit by pepper spray and agrees that they do want to interview me but he has to wait on another detective. While I’m waiting, I hear the dispatcher on the phone telling someone else that no detectives are in the building and they should do a written statement and someone will call.”

“We attempted, a second day, a second time, to offer a verbal deposition. We were told, just as we were yesterday afternoon, that there was no officer available at that moment who could take our statement,” writes Lee. “I asked dispatcher Richardson about the possibility of writing a statement while we wait – she then said we could do that (as she had not initially offered that option). After writing down our witness statement, the dispatcher told us that there were now no officers who could hear our testimony this afternoon. She could not give us any definitive sense as to when we would be called, or even whether we would be called… She said she would take our written statements. I mentioned that there was a place for a signature – showing the statement had been received. She said that she could not sign… but at that point went in to a nearby room and found an officer who then did agree to accept and sign our documents…(we had taken pictures of our written page before turning them over.

“Such was our frustrating experience to date…”

“After my right eye was washed out enough so that I could actually talk to someone without interruption, I looked out at the street back towards the parking lot,” said David Oppenheimer, who was hit with pepper spray, “There was a Central Falls Fire Department rescue vehicle parked on the curb across the street and out on the street side of it I saw a number of police and maybe rescue workers talking, The confab broke up; one cop was standing there alone, doing nothing.

“I walked over to him to tell him that I wanted to make a statement and he dismissed me by waving his hand and saying, ‘We’re not doing that now.’ I asked when they were but he turned away back towards the vehicle – where another cop now was just standing not seeming to be doing anything – and didn’t say anything.

“My eye started burning again so I just walked to the rescue vehicle to get another bottle of water. It seemed to me that the cop was just talking to the other cop…”

“On Wednesday, August 14, 2019 I was present at the peaceful anti-ICE protest at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls,” writes Chloe Chassaing. “I was sitting across the street from protestors who were sitting in a line, singing songs, blocking a Wyatt parking lot as part of a conscientious civil disobedience event. I witnessed a large black truck run into the sitting protestors who only by luck were able to jump from being critically or fatally injured. I and many others went toward the truck and surrounded it, in part to prevent further potential assault by the driver. I stood in front of the hood facing the driver who looked calm and was communicating on his walkie talkie. He was wearing a uniform of a Wyatt correctional officer. When many correctional officers ran toward the group and surrounded the truck, I witnessed bystanders being indiscriminately pepper sprayed.

“After the truck assault, for at least 20 minutes I repeatedly asked correctional officers and police to detain, arrest, or at least question the man who had been behind the wheel and used his truck as a deadly weapon. I and others were told things like ‘there will be an investigation,’ ‘we’re trying to get things sorted out,’ ‘we need to deal with medical situations,’ etc, as reasons for why they were not detaining/arresting/questioning the man who dozens of us were able to identify as the assailant. I was able to read his uniform which said, ‘Captain Woodworth,’ and even when I had his name, continuing to ask for his detention, etc, I was ignored. The entire time he was standing with his arms folded, slightly behind the line of Correctional Officers and Police Officers. No one arrested him or even pulled him aside or questioned him. I have multiple cellphone videos where I repeatedly point out Captain Woodworth, asking for his detention, etc, with no action by the authorities. Eventually he walked with a group of them across the street and appeared to go to work at the Wyatt.

“On Thursday, August 15th, 2019, many of us involved in the previous night’s demonstration received notice from Never Again RI organizers that the Rhode Island Attorney General was investigating the Wyatt truck assault incident and that anyone who wanted to file a statement/complaint should go to the Central Falls police department that day to do so. Around 3:45pm I arrived at the station with Camilo. We had both been present and Camilo had been amongst the people sitting doing civil protest by blocking the Wyatt parking lot. He was approximately 10 feet from where the truck drove in and when the truck was surrounded by fellow protestors, Camilo was right next to the truck driver, whose window was initially rolled down. Camilo read the name on his correctional officer uniform and began yelling ‘Captain Woolworth. Fire Captain Woolworth. Fire Captain Woolworth,’ (his name is actually Woodworth).

“When Camilo and I approached the front window attendant at the Central Falls police station we told her we were there to file a complaint or give a statement about the incident from the previous night at the Wyatt. She acted confused and said she didn’t know what we were talking about. She then asked Camilo if someone had called him to come in, somewhat implying that he should have had an appointment. She asked us who had told us to come there. We had to be persistent to eventually speak to a police officer who escorted us upstairs. By this time we were joined by another person who had been present the night before and also came to the Central Falls Police Department to give a statement, Claude. The three of us were brought into a room where others who were witnesses were waiting to give oral interviews and/or write witness statements. One man who had been present the night before requested to be interviewed with his partner present but was told he must do so alone, and it seems they adamantly denied him this request. So instead he filled out a written statement to submit.

“After a few minutes in the room a police officer entered and asked Camilo, Claude, and I about our involvement/proximity/injury regarding the truck assault. Claude and I had both directly witnessed the truck driving into the protestors, and were subsequently witness to protestors being pepper sprayed. The police officer determined that Camilo should stay to be questioned, but that witness statements from Claude and I were not necessary. As the officer was escorting Claude and I away we asked if we could file a written statement, as we had just seen another person do so in the witness waiting room. We were discouraged from doing so but we were persistent and were given papers to write our statements. We were told to do so in the Central Falls Police Department entrance lobby and then to turn them into the attendant at the front window. I was not given a pen or anything to write on, but luckily I had my own pen and awkwardly used a soft chair as a writing surface.

“While Claude and I were writing up our statements we saw approximately 10-12 others who had been present at the truck assault enter the Central Falls Police Department to give testimony/file complaints. The first groups of people were told by the attendant at the window, at this point a different person than the one when I had arrived, that they were not taking any more statements but that they would take people’s names and numbers. Claude and I asked the woman if the people could write written statements like the ones we were doing (simple one-sided piece of paper). She told us she did not have the authority to give out those pieces of paper because she was not a police officer. We asked her to speak to a police officer then.

“Several of the people who came, who had intended to give testimony, decided to leave after giving their names and phone numbers to the attendant. They did not provide written testimony and were denied the option to do so. At this point Claude and I felt obligated to wait in the lobby so that others would not be turned away, denied the right to give a written testimony. Another group of people who had been present at the truck assault were more persistent and eventually a police officer came out to the lobby and handed them the papers to fill out the witness statements. At approximately 5pm, when the police officer was handing out the papers he spoke to all of us present, around 6-8 witnesses, regarding the written statements.

“He said that they were overwhelmed and things like ‘there are only so many workers’ and ‘it’s a busy city.’ meant to discourage us from providing written testimony. I told him I was sure the Attorney General could help with the work. The woman sitting next to me, who was given a paper to fill out a witness statement only after our group’s persistence, told us that the same officer had been present on the scene of the truck assault and refused to take statements from her and other witnesses in the minutes after the incident. She said he had used essentially the same line, saying that Central Falls had, ‘a lot of crime’ and that they were too busy to handle their statements.

“After some minutes another police officer came to speak with us in the lobby, he identified himself as the lieutenant in charge of the investigation from the Central Falls Police Department side. He told us we could file statements with the Attorney General’s office if we wanted, but he also explained it was all the same investigation. I questioned why people were being discouraged from providing written statements, as had been done to Claude and I, and as we witnessed happen to at least 8 others in a thirty minute time span. The lieutenant said they already had 100 statements/testimonies and that they only needed new information. He said it wasn’t useful to have statements and witness testimonies that said essentially the same thing, that they were only looking for new pieces of information.

“I found this disturbing and questioned it, saying it didn’t make sense to me, that it seemed for a comprehensive investigation it would be best to have as many witness testimonies as possible. I said, what if someone moved away or could not re-confirm their statement, wouldn’t it be helpful to have multiple people saying the same thing. He said that was not necessary, but that he would accept our statements. He appeared to read mine over when I handed it to him. The last third of my statement pertained to the denial of basic investigatory protocol, both on the night of the truck assault incident, and on that very day as I witnessed people being turned away and discouraged from providing written testimony at the Central Falls Police Department. Overall the lieutenant became more helpful, after our requests, and fortunately he eventually provided an additional stack of witness statement papers that he left in the lobby. I lent people my pen to use and people found whatever surface they could to write on, like a soft chair or small counter. There were no clipboards or pens provided, which made writing the statements difficult, especially for people with mobility issues or injuries, such as some of those present.

“Luckily those of us present were persistent and demanded a chance to submit written testimony, but I don’t know how it proceeded the rest of the day, before and after we left. Claude and I both had other commitments but were reluctant to leave the lobby of the Central Falls Police Department because we saw how people were only given a chance to provide written testimony after the collective pressure of those present. We worried that after we left others would again be turned away. Eventually, around 6pm, I had to leave but before I did so I asked the lieutenant and window attendant if they would no longer deny people the chance to provide written testimony. He pointed to the stack of about ten pieces of paper, blank witness statements, on the counter on the lobby side. I asked if once those papers ran out they would give out more papers, which he answered ‘yes.’ I was still reluctant to leave but had to go. I don’t know how many people were turned away throughout the day before we arrived, and I hope that after that others were not tuned away.

“Camilo reported back to me on his experience being orally interviewed. He was in an interrogation-type room with a one-sided mirror with someone from the Attorney General office and a Central Falls police officer. First they spoke about the incident, asked questions and took notes, then they recorded his statement. Camilo said they asked some leading questions, regarding people touching the truck, etc, though he can tell you more about that…

“I also have a bunch of cellphone video of me repeatedly asking for the CO’s detention, questioning, etc, with no action by the authorities.”

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