Did These Cops Use Excessive Force?

July 13, 2022Joshua Skovlund
Newport Police officers are under investigation for allegedly using excessive force on two Rhode Island men they arrested on June 26, 2022. Screenshot via Newport Police Department body armor footage.

Newport Police officers are under investigation for allegedly using excessive force on two Rhode Island men they arrested on June 26, 2022. Screenshot via Newport Police Department body armor footage.

It lasts less than 20 seconds, but bystander footage of an early June 26 scuffle in downtown Newport involving cops and a pair of 22-year-old men has triggered excessive force probes by Rhode Island’s state police and attorney general.

At issue is whether police officers were allowed to bull rush a suspect into a street lamp and punch a man who entered their security “bubble” during an arrest.

“There’s another term that floats around called ‘lawful but awful,’ where the officer’s force looks terrible visually. The optics are horrible, but it’s justified because of the totality of the situation,” police use-of-force expert Jesse J. Porter Jr. told Coffee or Die Magazine.

In the wake of the incident, authorities charged Christopher Adam with obstructing an officer in the execution of duty and resisting arrest. Dennis Engelson drew the same charges, plus a sole count of disorderly conduct.

“We have reviewed the police reports. There are clearly some major discrepancies between the written narratives issued from the Newport Police Department and what is clearly shown on the videos that have been released,” Craig Hein, Adam’s attorney, said in a prepared statement.

A similar statement was released by Engelson’s attorney.

Newport 1

Newport Police officers are under investigation for allegedly using excessive force on two Rhode Island men they arrested on June 26, 2022. Screenshot via Newport Police Department body armor footage.

The defendants’ legal woes appear to have begun after midnight on June 26 along Thames Street in downtown Providence.

Police reports allege that Officer John Sullivan was performing crowd control duties when he stumbled upon Engelson swinging a bar mat at club hoppers. Sullivan said that he ordered Engelson to leave multiple times, but the man retorted, “Nah, fuck that.”

Sullivan claimed he tried to arrest Engelson, but the “belligerent” man grabbed his wrist to break free. The cop said he pushed him against a parked public transportation trolley and smacked him with a closed-hand strike to the face.

Sullivan was quickly joined by Officer Neil Sullivan — no relation — and Detective Patrick Walsh, who began helping cuff Engelson.

The Newport Police Department told Coffee or Die the officers weren’t allowed to speak to the media during the ongoing probes. Their union leaders didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

A bystander video shows a man from the gathering crowd patting one of the officers. Walsh turns and begins to bull rush the unknown person and two other bystanders alongside the trolley. One of the men ends up colliding with a streetlamp, and another stumbles toward the pavement.

The camera cuts back to the three officers with Engelson. That’s when Adam emerges from the crowd and stands only inches from the cops. In the footage, he appears to address the officers, but Walsh swings around and hits him with an open palm.

“Adam squared his shoulders with me and began removing his right hand from his pocket. I feared he was about to remove a weapon from his pocket and act violently toward me,” Walsh wrote in his incident report. “I raised my left forearm vertically in defense. Adam was in such close proximity to me that he made contact with it. I struck him with an open hand, and brought him to the ground to arrest him.”

A 33-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia who investigated many use-of-force incidents, Porter said the detective’s incident report explains why he struck, and what’s on paper would be appropriate in most police forces.

“But is that what happened? Is that what the video showed,” Porter asked. “I think that’s a different situation.”

Newport Police

Rhode Island’s Newport Police Department investigates roughly 4,000 crimes every year.

Porter cautioned readers that just because a strike looks bad on video doesn’t mean it’s an illegal law enforcement tactic.

“I find it a little difficult to render a decision on that a punch, just because — the key part — just because it is a punch, is excessive force,” Porter said.

That’s a view shared by Rachael Frost, a violence recognition and response expert who specializes in police practices following a 20-year career with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

Like Porter, she told Coffee or Die a lot depends on why and how a strike is used.

For example, Frost said she’s okay with the officer striking Engleson during the initial arrest. But she understands why viewers might be troubled by Walsh’s decision to bull rush the bystander into a street light.

“He pushed them fast and far. Had it stopped a few feet earlier, it might not have looked so bad on video,” Frost said. “I wonder if he ever even saw the guy hitting the pole because he pushed through and turned back to the initial fight.”

Newport 5

Rhode Island’s Newport Police Department investigates roughly 4,000 crimes annually.

Frost and Porter said citizens needed to understand the importance of a security bubble around officers who are trying to perform their official duties, like when they’re arresting an allegedly unruly suspect.

And that’s especially true when their backs are turned to a crowd or they’re inside a tavern, where people have been drinking.

“So they could reach out and grab your firearm. They could grab your OC spray, hit you with a bottle, especially in a bar-type situation,” Porter said. “So I understood the threat that the officers felt as far as people trying to interfere with the arrest.”

Porter and Frost said people needed to understand that officers are often pumped with adrenaline during chaotic confrontations, and they’re forced to make quick decisions about force protection and the law.

They also urged caution with bystander videos, which often fail to tell the whole story about an incident.

They asked readers to wait for the ongoing investigations to paint a fuller picture of what happened.

“It is important with all of these situations to include all of these discussions and to go beyond initial reactions to open discussions,” Frost said. “This is where I feel we can all understand each other’s actions and reactions— civilians and law enforcement alike.”

Read Next: A Small Town Along a Fork of the Big Sandy Mourns 3 Slain Kentucky Lawmen

Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.

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