Civil Rights

Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks to the press about the ongoing Wyatt investigation

“It is my expectation that this investigation will wrap up in the next several weeks,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha. “We will have more information to share at that time.” Saying he was “not going to be announcing the results” of the investigation because “it is not complete,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha spoke to reporters about

Published on August 21, 2019
By Steve Ahlquist

“It is my expectation that this investigation will wrap up in the next several weeks,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha. “We will have more information to share at that time.”

Saying he was “not going to be announcing the results” of the investigation because “it is not complete,” Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha spoke to reporters about the ongoing investigation into the incident that occurred last Wednesday at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls.

At the protest activists organized by Never Again Providence and other immigration groups were calling for the end to the contract the for-profit prison has made with the United States Marshall Service to hold United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees and for the detention facility to be shut down.

At the protest, Wyatt Correctional Officer Thomas Woodworth drove a pickup truck into peaceful protesters seated in a crosswalk outside the Facility, and other correctional officers subsequently pepper sprayed protesters moments later. Woodworth has resigned from his position at the Wyatt.

At the press conference, Neronha was joined by Colonel James Manni of the Rhode Island State Police and Colonel Daniel Barzykowski of the Central Falls Police Department.

“While in general I believe that the faster we complete our investigations the better, and we are moving as quickly as possible here, what is most important is that we get it right,” said Neronha.

“The incident last Wednesday night involved many, many people, and several distinct acts. All the evidence that pertains to those acts, and the individuals involved, needs to be gathered and reviewed.

“In any investigation, information provided by witnesses is critical.

“With respect to this incident, there were many witnesses,” continued Neronha. “Not every witness saw everything. Not every witness saw what they saw from the same vantage point. Certain individuals have reported, directly and indirectly, contact with the vehicle operated that night, and/or with what is colloquially known as pepper spray.

“To reach the right conclusions, it is imperative that we speak to every witness who was there that night, and to every witness who reports injury. To date we have interviewed 31 witnesses, and there remain several additional witnesses to interview who have submitted written statements.

“To be clear: We want to speak with anyone that has information regarding what occurred that night. What they saw. What they heard. What injuries they suffered.

“We believe that at this point we have interviewed or received statements from most of the percipient witnesses. That said, anyone who wants to provide information, including video footage, should contact:

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  • Rhode Island State Police, Detective Robert Hopkins – (401) 764-5539
  • Central Falls Police, Lieutenant Frank Rodriguez, 401-616-2508
  • Attorney General’s Office, Mark Blair – (401) 274-4400 x2236

“There has also been a substantial amount of video footage to obtain and review, continued Neronha.

“Some of that video footage is from the Wyatt Detention itself. Other footage was taken by media outlets. Still other footage was taken by individuals who happened to take video as the incident was ongoing. Some of that video is currently available on social media. We are still obtaining, reviewing and evaluating all that video footage.

“There are at least two principle actions that require our evaluation.

“The first is the operation of the vehicle.

“The second is the deployment of what is commonly known as pepper spray.

“As I have stated, that evaluation is underway, with all possible speed. We are committed to getting it right. Getting it right, particularly in this instance, given the volume of information available to us, requires doing it with deliberation.

“It is my expectation that this investigation will wrap up in the next several weeks,” concluded Neronha. “We will have more information to share at that time.”

After Neronha concluded his remarks, he took questions, beginning at 7m12s in the video above.

At 8m30s in the video I asked if there were any federal officers at the scene, since one of the correctional officers had identified himself as a federal officer on my video.

“Let me define what I understand a federal officer to be,” replied Neronha.
“In my experience as a former US Attorney and as a former line prosecutor, as an assistant US Attorney, to me a federal officer is an FBI agent, or a DEA agent or an ATF agent. The employment status or the peace officer status of Wyatt Correctional Officers is not something, at the moment, I want to comment on. Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure how germane it is to what it is that we’re investigating.”

In answer to a question (9m29s) about possible charges against the protesters, Neronha said that, “Our principle focus is on the operation of the vehicle in question and the deployment of pepper spray.”

The case is atypical from a lot of perspectives, said Neronha. “That’s why it’s incumbent on us here to let the public know that we’re on it and we’re working hard and I hope to have some conclusions in the relatively near future.”

James Manni

Colonel Manni said (13m38s) that State Police reviewed the action plan that the Central Falls Police had come up with and was satisfied. The Rhode Island State Police had three cars and five troopers patrolling the area of the Wyatt Detention Center the night of the protest.

I noted that when the truck drove into the protesters, there were no police officers nearby. Manni referred the question to Colonel Barzykowski of the Central Falls Police Department.

Daniel Barzykowski

Colonel Barzykowski said (15m00s) that his department had a plan to protect the protesters and to protect protesters who were making their way back to Jenks Park, where the protesters had gathered before marching to the Wyatt.

Barzykowski said that the Central Falls Police were under no special orders from Mayor James Diossa, and were following the safety plan he had laid out with them.

“I believe my officers acted appropriately and responsibly to the unfortunate incident that occurred,” said Barzykowski. “We’re going to work together to ensure the public’s trust.”

Daniel Barzykowski

Asked if the Attorney General will be investigating allegations by people recently released from the Wyatt about not being given adequate access to legal and health services (21m11s), Neronha replied, “Not at this point. I’ve had communications with folks in the immigration community…” said Neronha, adding that the reports of recently released people have not been made to his office directly, adding, “Obviously, I am interested in that.”

Asked if he had seen anything to indicate that it was not a peaceful protest, Neronha said, “No I haven’t, but we’re still evaluating…

“We have in this country a fundamental right to peacefully protest,” said Neronha. “When you engage in peaceful protest – and people who engage in protest know this – and you’re blocking a roadway – You, know, there was a case a number of years ago where some protesters blocked 95, I believe it was in the wake of Ferguson – Look, I understand the emotion behind it, I understand the principles that are trying to be upheld, [but] there comes a point where you are obstructing public safety, putting others in danger, where you can be arrested.

“I think most protesters know that. But when you engage in that kind of civil disobedience, what you expect is to be handled professionally,” concluded Neronha. “That is a right that I take seriously and I know all Americans do.”

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