Wyatt Detention Center: are police officers held accountable?
Alison Macbeth, Opinions Editor
Who knew that a driving into a crowd of people would be permissible? This is the shocking reality for Rhode Island protestors as of October 24. The grand jury decided that Captain Thomas Woodworth’s actions on August 14 at the Wyatt Detention Center did not support probable cause for criminal charges. This is reprehensible.
Watching the video footage of Captain Woodworth intentionally driving at a high speed into a parking lot barricaded by yellow-clad Never Again Action protesters is chilling. Some viewers might assume that Woodworth did not see the protestors. However, after he came inches away from the protestors, he paused and then continued driving forward as protestors stood in front of his truck. A few minutes later, other officers came out from the detention center with tear gas and aggressive attitudes. It is clear that the officers were not coming out to maintain peace nor were they concerned with the protestors exercising their first amendment right in opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) presence at the facility.
Any reasonable person who would watch the video footage of this incident would determine that there is probable cause for a criminal charge. This is not saying that Woodworth committed a crime, but rather that the incident constitutes evidence of a crime. If any other person drove into a crowd of protestors somewhere else, most reasonable people would see this as an act of aggression and worthy of further investigation. Several protestors were injured by Woodworth’s actions. Yet, by the decision of the grand jury, the victims are informed that their injuries are not the fault of the individual operating the vehicle.
The protestors could have not been sitting at the entrance of a state owned parking lot. They could have run away after the truck drove quickly towards them. (Read the comments on The Sun video and you’ll have every reason for the police officer to run down the “lefties”, communists and fascists. One commenter received 95 likes for touting that “Blocking and surrounding people in their vehicles should be considered false imprisonment or kidnapping.”)
Despite these extreme statements, there are reasonable factors that should be considered for this incident. The protestors were technically on private property (owned by the state) and surrounded the truck. After Woodworth drove quickly towards them, many protestors refused to move and banged on the windows. This certainly did not maintain a peaceful environment, but is understandable in the case of almost being run over by a car.
All in all, the issue comes down to this - a police officer is permitted to use aggressive force on a group of peaceful protestors without repercussions. There is little to no accountability for his actions. Without much thought, there are many other ways Woodworth could still have exercised his right to go to work without wielding personal aggression. He could have asked protestors to move and if they refused, he could have called for backup. Instead he took matters into his own hands and used his authority to assert himself - ultimately, risking the health and safety of the individuals protesting.
A police officer, of all people, should be setting the example when it comes to keeping the peace and protecting the rights of Americans. Woodworth not only failed to keep the peace but instigated a conflict that has probable cause for criminal indictment. The grand jury’s decision is shocking and causes us to ask, yet again: are police officers held accountable for their actions?