PERA implodes

“It’s no secret,” continued Chair Figueroa, “that we have yet to resolve one complaint that’s come into PERA – and I know that Jose [Batista] and our investigator Eugene Montiero have been working hard to try to resolve the cases that this board has forwarded to the [Providence Police] Department – although, as of today… we have not resolved one single complaint that’s been issued to us largely because of roadblocks that we’ve run into at the [Providence Police] Department.”
Photo for PERA implodes

Published on November 17, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

At Monday night’s meeting of the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), the board moved, on a vote of 6-3, to terminate Jose Batista as Executive Director in response to his release of two videos showing Providence Police Sergeant Joseph Hanley assaulting a handcuffed man prostrate on the ground. Hanley is on paid leave, facing charges of simple assault. PERA is the only citizen police oversight board in Rhode Island, and was formed over three years ago after the passage of the hard won Community Safety Act (CSA), a comprehensive policing reform bill.

This PERA meeting was “probably the largest… in terms of individuals that have come to participate in this process” according to the Chair, with perhaps hundreds of people trying to get into the online Zoom meeting, only to be immediately frustrated by the 100 person limit in attendance. Providence City Clerk Shawn Selleck encouraged people several times to leave Zoom and watch the meeting on the city’s YouTube live stream if they did not plan on making public comments. In the end, only 21 people were given the opportunity to express themselves.

Every single person who testified said they thought that releasing the Sergeant Hanley video was the right thing to do. All but one of the people testifying asked the board not terminate Batista as Executive Director. (The entire meeting is presented below.)

The meeting began with a roll call vote [Video 01] and a message from City Clerk Selleck intended to deal with the more than 100 people who wanted to watch the meeting [Video 02].

PERA Chair Nicholas Figueroa shared a few words ahead of public comment and the board’s discussion of Batista’s action.

“We are here because our Executive Director Jose Batista last week released a video that was given to us by the Department of Public Safety. We, as a board, voted to produce a report, but a majority of the votes stated that we would not release the video at that time and would actually forward the APRA (Access to Public Records Act) requests to the city. The city then responded that the video would not be released based on a recommendation from the Attorney General’s office as this is seen as a criminal investigation,” said Figueroa.

“For me, as I think about what has transpired this past week, I have some conflict because we have, with the Jhamal Gonsalves case, a criminal investigation in which the Department did go ahead and release evidence, video to the public, and yet we had this other situation in the Hanley case which is also a criminal investigation – but that particular video we had to file a subpoena to get. So there’s some contradiction there between how we’ve been able to get some information from our public safety department.

“It’s no secret,” continued Chair Figueroa, “that we have yet to resolve one complaint that’s come into PERA – and I know that Jose [Batista] and our investigator Eugene Montiero have been working hard to try to resolve the cases that this board has forwarded to the [Providence Police] Department – although, as of today… we have not resolved one single complaint that’s been issued to us largely because of roadblocks that we’ve run into at the [Providence Police] Department.”

Figueroa noted that though today’s meeting was about Executive Director Batista, the issue is actually much bigger. “We have to think about our organization and the type of work that we’re going to do moving forward given that we have all of these challenges that we face with trying to live out the mission of this organization.”

Figueroa also said that he has a hard time discussing the dismissal of Executive Director Batista, given that Sergeant Hanley, “committed some serious violations upon another human being and this individual has not lost his job, was suspended with pay…”

“At the end of the day we also have to remember that the recommendation not to release of the video by the Attorney General’s office is just that – a recommendation,” said Figueroa.

Chair Figueroa wrapped up his remarks noting that PERA “is here not as an organization that exists to be ‘fair’ to both sides, but rather, an organization that’s here to hold police accountable when accountability is the issue.”

Public testimony:

“What Batista has done is what the Board could never have done, because we have [PERA board] members, such as Susan DeRita, Machiste Rankin, and Michael Fontaine who continue to stonewall the wellbeing of the community,” said Alex Karoff-Hunger, who made the first of many calls for certain boardmembers to resign. “If you do not resign you are continuing the racism that has effectively bound our community since way before PERA has started.”

“I want to understand how this board came to the decision in the first place not to release that information,” said Chief Raymond Watson, Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe and community activist. “I grew up in this community… The police are out of control.” Watson then proceeded to call out members of the board, Rankin, DeRita, Fontaine and Kenneth Cohen for not representing the community.

“Mr Cohen, as I understand it you used to be the head of a police union or something. How are you on this board? How are you giving an unbiased opinion? You’re not!” asked Watson. “Mr Fontaine, you still have your blocked, you live in Barrington, or wherever you live, you’re from Boston, how are you representing the Providence community? You’re not.

“Chair, you said it correctly. This board has not accomplished anything. It has not resolved one case. But what it did do, is vote to not show the public a video of a police officer beating on a handcuffed man.”

“The issue here is the community was lead to believe that what Officer Hanley did was a misdemeanor, the he punched somebody,” said Casby Harrison. “But full disclosure was not made. Full transparency was not made. If the community knew that a Providence Police Officer did essentially the same thing as the officer in the George Floyd case, by putting his knee on the neck of a Black man who’s on his stomach and handcuffed with his hands behind his back, the community would be outraged. And I am outraged that this board has not been more supportive of Jose Batista.”

“We have to realize that police brutality cannot go on in this City. That should not happen,” said Ty’Relle Stephens. “If people think this is okay, you should be ashamed of yourselves..”

Kristy (no last name given) is the only person who testified in favor of dismissing Executive Director Batista. “While I agree that the video footage should have been released… there was clearly brutality… the purpose of this particular meeting is to determine whether or not Mr Batista abused his power. He in fact did abuse his power.”

“I have seen the old version of PERA, the version established in the 2000s, which kind of withered away and disappeared when it didn’t have enough public support,” said Randall Rose. “There are times when something like PERA needs to do something dramatic in response to stonewalling from the police to make sure that we get public support.”

“The problem here is not Executive Director Batista’s actions of releasing the footage,” said Angel Lopez. “We all know that the problem is police brutality that’s taking place. A problem cannot be solved by putting it in a drawer and locking it up… The Board should apologize to Executive Director Batista and to the community of Providence just for even holding this meeting instead of taking the time to address the issue [of police brutality.]”

“I 100 percent support Jose in his decision to release this video,” said Jamie Vita. “I don’t think PERA has much of a promising community if the community doesn’t trust it or believe that PERA’s going to really act to hold the police accountable… Oversight is an adversarial relationship. It’s not a neutral relationship… It seems like the PERA Board is fighting its own Executive Director more than it is fighting to provide oversight and accountability on the Providence Police.”

“There’s a really huge disconnect,” said Chanda Womack. “I’m not sure if board members of PERA understand or are internalizing the mission of PERA. Your role is to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Your mission is to serve as a system of civilian oversight over the providence police Department. There is no neutrality, people. If your role interferes or hinders your ability to serve the community, you need to get off the board.” Executive Director Batista is not accountable to the PERA Board, continued Womack, “He is accountable to the mission of PERA. The PERA board clearly is not stewarding the mission…

“And I’m telling you, if [Batista] gets fired – you saw global civil unrest? there will be another pandemic in Rhode Island. Trust we will organize.”

“I’ve lived in Providence since 1977 and it’s no secret that we’ve had a corrupt Police Department from back in the days when the Jumpout Boys used to beat up kids behind the Star Market,” said Lisa Niebels. “The difference is between then and know is that we have video and we can see what really happened. And I support Jose Batista in releasing this video…”

At this point there were still 26 people waiting to testify. Only 11 more people did.

“All of our communities in Rhode Island look to Providence for guidance in how to conduct our government and our police force… So what happens in providence affects us throughout the state,” said Susannah Holloway, a Barrington resident. “This release was very important… Mr Batista is supporting the United States Constitution. This is Democracy in real time…”

“Sergeant Hanley was charged with simple assault, only for punching that young man,” said Lisa Scorpio. “But he kneeled on his neck, and put his hand on the car to go down harder. He kicked him in the head. Kicking someone in the head, with handcuffs, is a felony. He stepped on his legs. An officer doesn’t just suddenly do this. this is part of his character. he’s also a Jiu Jitsu trainer, so he knows what he’s doing.”

Scorpio went on to call for the resignation of board members DeRita, Rankin, and Fontaine, saying that they “are more worried about protecting the police than the community.”

“I stand with Jose Batista,” concluded Scorpio. He is a hero, and he put his job on the line to do the right thing.”

“I find it disgusting that we are here discussing the Director’s firing,” said Leah Williams Metts, “because what he did is release a public record. I personally have been asking publicly for the video to be released for a while. The people on this board who are against it do need to step down.” Williams Metts specifically called for the resignation of Rankin, DeRita, and Fontaine. “You need to step down because you are not with the community. You are not doing what the community needs you to do.”

“I appreciate people saying that PERA is here to investigate misconduct and police brutality,” said Brooklyn. “But I want to say, on record, police brutality doesn’t really exist. Policing is brutality. You can’t have policing without having brutality…

“I want to echo Chanda. If Batista is fired, we will not panic. We will simply organize. We the people cannot and will not ever be silent. We will get justice and we will hold you guys accountable. And we will be heard by any means necessary.”

“We should not let what is legal get in the way of what is just and what is right,” said Tiara Mack, Senator-elect for District 6 in Providence. Mack wants to continue to push against the Providence Police Department and “make each and every one of their videos, in instances of police brutality, public information without subpoenas…”

“The PERA Board is supposed to serve the community,” said Kira Wills. “In his duties as executive director, Jose Batista chose to think about the community he serves.” Wills reiterated calls for Rankin, DeRita and Fontaine to resign.

“I want you to think individually about why you did not want to release this video. Do you have some personal qualms, yourself? Is there something within you that says, ‘Hey, I don’t believe in police brutality?'” said Dion Baker.

“The firing of Jose [Batista] will be a clear insult to our community,” said Carlene Fonseca. “We need more transparency and more accountability in our community.”

Marcus Mitchell wanted to know who called for this meeting to consider firing Executive Director Batista. “I believe that Mr Batista was following the mission of the commission and he was not in any violation and certainly he should not be in any jeopardy of termination.”

Justin Roias said that PERA’s refusal to release the video back in August, “further solidified PERA as an agency who’s less concerned about civilian oversight of the police and more concerned about protecting the image and existence of the Providence Police Department.”

Wongo Okon objected to Chair Figueroa’s decision to limit the number of people allowed to speak at this meeting. He reiterated calls for the resignation of board members Fontaine, DeRita and Randkin. “Fontaine- you do not live in Providence. I do not know why you are on this board… PERA needs to appoint members who understand the bylaws and the mission of this board.”

Board Discussion and Vote:

Assistant City Solicitor Jillian Barker explained that the Board had only two options, terminating Executive Director Jose Batista or not terminating. There was no mechanism, said Barker, for a lesser or more nuanced punishment. “While some members might want to negotiate something that is less than a firing, it is my opinion that the ordinance and the bylaws only give the board the ability to hire or fire the executive director,” said Barker.

Chair Figueroa then tried to turn the item agenda over to board member Susan DeRita, who called for the meeting. DeRita seemed surprised by this and demurred, saying she was not the only person to call for this meeting. Who the other board members are that called for this was not discussed.

Board member Michael Fontaine, who attended by audio only, not video, said that much of the public comment was fueled by misinformation.

“I was not going to get into this,” said Fontaine, “but since my name and other people’s names have been invoked, with a lot of misinformation, I feel compelled at this point to speak on this… This is not a matter of anyone on the board wanting to release a video. This is about following the rules that we are given.”

Fontaine said that the board could not release the video because it was confidential information given to the board via a subpoena. “A lot of people referenced the George Floyd video, ” said Fontaine. “That was some individual person taking the video on the street. That was their video. They could post it. Maybe they did post it first. I don’t know. But that’s not what this video was. It was obtained through a subpoena.”

Actually, though the Sergeant Hanley videos were obtained through a subpoena, only one of the two videos was from a police body camera. The other video was by, to quote Fontaine, “some individual person taking the video on the street.” It was taken outside a window, looking down at Hanley.

Fontaine went on to say, “It doesn’t come to anyone’s desire to release the videotape. We all have children. I don’t care who you are, white, Black, green, brown or anything else, we all have encountered the police and and I guess most of us – or some of – not very good interactions with them.” This issue, said Fontaine, has nothing to do with that.

“We cannot disregard our rules whenever we feel like it… The ramifications of not following the rules that were put in place for us is that this board will be disbanded,” said Fontaine. “So I believe, in this particular case, where everyone is saying that you’re not with the community, no no no. I think people are very mistaken about that. If we keep violating our own rules, that’s when you put PERA in jeopardy. That’s when people say, ‘Hey, these people are releasing confidential information hand over fist, we gotta disband it.'”

Board member Deborah Wray took issue with Batista’s actions, and said that “when you are given a position of power, you do not cut the Board’s throat. Wray also noted other disagreements she, and the board, has had with Batista.

“On the one hand, I was raised as an activist, and I would be on the other side of this screen, screaming at PERA too about how it isn’t right for us to have held back this video, and to let [Sergeant Hanly’s actions] slide, or sweep it under the rug. I understand that as a young person of color whose family was also targeted by the police and the city. I’ve witnessed first hand what they can do and it sucks,” said boardmember Kimberly Dy. “But on the other hand I’m also someone who is sitting on this board and I’m also someone who was part of those executive sessions that made these decisions and I’ve been having some inner turmoil trying to figure out whether I’m being a little too unbiased, whether I’m being a little too neutral…”

“My name came up a lot tonight,” said PERA Vice-Chair Machiste Rankin. “And I’ve been asked to step down by a lot of individuals who, I don’t know if it’s willful mis-characterization on the behalf of some individuals within the structure of the board or if it’s willful ignorance. But the facts are, if anyone actually chooses to look at my record of voting on this board, you can’t say, or show one instance where any of my votes have been antithetical to the mission of this board…

“If being instructed by the city’s law department that we couldn’t show a video and figuring the long game versus the short game – understanding outrage, understanding reaction, understanding that people are pissed off – I’m a black man too… But we’ve been given a mandate to follow rules…”

Discussion ended, boardmember Wray made a motion to terminateExecutive Director Jose Batista. Boardmember Fontaine seconded. Chair Figueroa and boardmembers Dy and Elise Swearingen voted against termination. Vice-chair Rankin and boardmembers Cohen, DeRita, Fontaine, Wray and Phanida Phivilay voted to terminate.

The rest of the meeting was next steps, as the board realized that they now had to begin the process of advertising for the job of and interviewing candidates for the position of executive director. This process, expected to take months, with effectively stall the board from taking any real action on the numerous complaints before the board for a very long time.

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