Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
The case of Corey West: On January 17, 1995, white Providence Police officer Richard F. Ruggiero, Jr., a rookie, allegedly kicked Corey West, an African-American, repeatedly as he lay on the ground outside a nightclub; the encounter was captured on videotape and broadcast on local news programs.4 Ruggiero told television reporters that he kicked West because he thought he was reaching for Ruggiero's nightstick. Ruggiero was suspended without pay after then-Chief Gannon saw the videotape. Gannon complained that Ruggiero's refusal to tell his side of the story to investigators did not help matters.5
Even with substantial publicity and with the encounter captured on videotape - and the chief's outrage over what he saw discipline of Ruggiero was not guaranteed. There was an administrative hearing, prompted by West's complaint, which was held even though police ought to have known - and were reportedly advised by West's attorney - that he was in jail in Massachusetts and could not attend.6 Officers are automatically found "not guilty" if the complainant fails to appear at a hearing. After the hearing was canceled, Ruggiero, his lawyers, and Fraternal Order of Police (FOP, a police organization) members proceeded to the deputy chief's office (because the chief was out of town) to demand Ruggiero's reinstatement, according to press reports.7 The deputy chief reportedly telephoned the chief, who was in Florida, and handed the phone to the FOP lawyer. The chief reportedly said Ruggiero would be reinstated, but without back-pay or lost seniority.8 To his credit, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr. said that the hearing must be rescheduled for a time when West could be present.9 On January 20, 1995, the FOP voted 328 to 39, expressing no confidence in Gannon and demanding his resignation because of his alleged undue haste in suspending Ruggiero.10 Mayor Cianci responded to the dispute between the police union and the chief by stating, "Let the chips fall where they may. We will not tolerate excessive force. We will not tolerate any brutality. If the tape shows what I believe it shows, we will take action."11 Ruggiero, who was still in his probationary period on the force when the videotaped kicking took place, was not dismissed.12
A federal civil rights investigation was initiated, and the case was brought before a federal grand jury in 1997. In November 1997, the grand jury deliberated for ten minutes and declined to indict Ruggiero.13
Frank Sherman: Frank Sherman, age sixteen, filed a brutality complaint after Foster (Providence County) police officer, Robert G. Sabetta, allegedly struck Sherman in the face with a flashlight, knocking out two teeth on January 9, 1992.14 After an internal investigation, Sabetta was suspended with pay. He was indicted by a grand jury in March 1993, for assault with a dangerous weapon, and then suspended without pay. In April 1993, even though he was ordered to stay away from Sherman and his friends, Sabetta found them working on cars late at night at a garage in Foster, where he shot and killed Frank Sherman, his brother Charles, and friend Jeremy Bullock. The Shermans' cousin, Darryl Drake, was shot but survived.15
Sabetta was apprehended early the next morning and arraigned for three counts of murder, one count of assault with intent to murder and was tried in June 1994 and convicted. In October 1994, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms plus twenty years. The trial judge called the killings a "deliberate, systematic and cold-blooded" execution.16
4 Associated Press, "Officer taped kicking black man is suspended," Boston Globe, January 19, 1995; Associated Press, "Officer silent in R.I. kicking case," Boston Globe, January 20, 1995.
5 Associated Press, "Officer silent...," Boston Globe.
6 John Castellucci, "Status of brutality case in dispute," Providence Journal-Bulletin, April 19, 1995.
10 John Castellucci, "Civil rights, religious leaders back suspension of officer," Providence Journal-Bulletin, January 24, 1995.
11 "Officer silent," Boston Globe, January 20, 1995.
12 John Castellucci, "Officer in kicking case sent to police academy," Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 9, 1995.
13 John Castellucci, "FBI probes kicking incident as possible civil rights violation," Providence Journal-Bulletin, February 1, 1995;"US jury acquits Providence officer," Associated Press, November 8, 1997, [Wire Service].
14 Jerry O'Brien, "3 youths slain in Foster," Providence Journal-Bulletin, April 15, 1993. Although this incident took place beyond the city of Providence, but within the same county, it is included here because of the chilling effect this type of attack on brutality complainants may have on other alleged victims of abuse in the region.
16 Associated Press, "Ex-officer who killed 3 in R.I. is sentenced to serve 50 years," Boston Globe, October 5, 1994.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch