In an unusual twist of events, Rhode Island police officers wrongly arrested one of their own officers’ during a foot chase in 2012, leaving Providence Police Officer Christopher Owens permanently disabled.
Owens, who has not returned to work since, recently filed a lawsuit against the Providence Police Department, alleging he and his son were victims of racial profiling.
They are black. The suspect was white.
But after Owens tackled the fleeing suspect in an attempt to help police, they pounced on him instead, handcuffing and placing him in the back of a patrol car. They also beat up his son, the suit claims.
The father and son are seeking $1 million in damages from the 2012 incident.
It began on Sept. 19, 2012 when Owens was off-duty at his home and a police chase ended in a vehicle crash right outside his house. Police had been chasing Sean Sparfven on stolen vehicle charges before Sparfven wrecked, jumped out of the stolen tow truck and begin fleeing the officers on foot.
Wanting to help out fellow officers, Owens began chasing the suspect, eventually tackling him.
Within seconds, Providence Officers Martin A. Rawnsley, Frank Furtado, Lt. Oscar Perez, and State Police Detective Mark McGarrity arrested and assaulted Owens and his son Tyler, suspecting they were perpetrators of the crime.
Owens quickly identified himself as a police officer, but his co-workers ignored him. The lawsuit alleges that the officers on scene knew Owens was a police officer because they worked shifts together in the past.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S District Court, Tyler worked special undercover assignments with the Providence Police Department; Tyler was assaulted, punched in the face, and handcuffed at the scene. Owens confirmed that he sustained several injuries during his arrest, and has not returned to work since. Owens is currently receiving a disability pension.
The State Police Superintendent Col. Steven O’Donnell alluded to the fact that Owens did not follow department policies for identifying himself as an officer at the scene. Col. O’Donnell stated the following:
“It’s unfortunate he was injured. It was a dynamic scene, but he has some responsibility for what transpired in that backyard,”
Yet, Providence police acknowledged in a press release that Owens made the arrest of Sparfven on scene.
Owens and Tyler are poignant in the lawsuit that they were treated as criminals while being assaulted, arrested, handcuffed and placed in the rear of police cars due to the color of their skin. One officer remarked that all he saw was a big black guy.
The Owens’ assert that their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The Fourth Amendment gives protection to every American citizen against unlawful search and seizure. The Fourteenth Amendment grants every American citizen the right to life, liberty, property, and equal protection of the laws.
The lawsuit further alleges that the City of Providence and the Police Department encompass lackluster training on racial bias and use of force; while also providing inadequate supervision, discipline, and remediation to officers who demonstrate a propensity for violence, abuse of authority, and bias to racial or ethnic groups that are different from their own.
This is not the first time the Providence Police Department has mistook its own for a criminal. In January of 2000, Providence police officer Cornel Young Jr. was off-duty like Owens when he was mistakenly shot and killed by two fellow officers. Young was also black.
The Owens’ case is not just about mistaken identity; it is rather a police culture of brutality and disrespect for the very citizens the police serve. Additionally, how could it be assumed that Owens was the criminal suspect when Owens is the one tackling Sparfven?
The real criminal, Sean Sparfven, was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.