A hard time moving on
Shedding a police officer's identity is hard for Petrella. He still wears his police boots around the house. A photo of his three-year-old daughter, taken with her wearing his police shirt with rolled-up sleeves, hangs prominently in his living room. Even now, he says, he runs into kids on the streets who call him “Sergeant.”
But for Petrella — who was raised with his four siblings in Silver Lake as a child of Italian immigrants — what’s hardest, it seems, is getting past the sting of insult attached to his termination.
From his first job working as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant at age 12 to his time with the Providence Police, he says, doing his job — and doing it well — has been a point of pride.
“He was a great neighborhood cop,” says Sergeant Steven Courville, who has known Petrella since they both worked in security at the Provi¬dence Civic Center (now the Dunkin’ Donuts Center). “He had a real compassion for people, and a real pride in working for the city.” Another patrolman, recalling how neighbors on Federal Hill, used to come out to greet Petrella, and how he wouldn’t hesitate to stop to play basketball with kids in the street, calls him an inspiration.
Petrella’s personnel file includes a series of commendation letters accrued over the years, including one praising him for an incident in which he chased and successfully apprehended a youth armed with a loaded sawed-off shotgun — on foot, with what the letter called a “total disregard for his own safety.” (The department doesn’t release personnel files; according to the ProJo’s archives, he has faced one charge of domestic assault and some civilian complaints, at least two that went to trial, none that he was found guilty of.)
“He was very honorable,” says City Councilman John J. Lombardi, who represents Federal Hill and recalls regularly seeing Petrella at neighborhood meetings. “He always went above and beyond the call of duty.”
When Petrella answered a call from an off-duty officer in the summer of 2003, asking him to meet at a parking lot in Cranston, Petrella says he thought he was just doing his duty.
At the time, he says, he was unaware that the officer — John Lough — was being investigated for failing to turn in a mini-bike he had seized the previous evening. (Petrella shared Lough’s beat and cruiser and was on-duty at the time.) So when Lough put the mini-bike in the trunk of Petrella’s cruiser and asked him to take it back to the station, Petrella agreed.
Internal Affairs drew different conclusions, and suspected Petrella of conspiring to cover for Lough. Earlier that day, a sergeant had checked the trunks of multiple cruisers, including Petrella’s, and confirmed they were empty. Yet according to the department, when a member of Internal Affairs approached Petrella after he returned at the end of his shift (with the mini-bike in his trunk), Petrella reported that the mini-bike had been in his cruiser all day. Petrella disputed that version of the events during Lough’s embezzlement trial, saying that Internal Affairs did not specifically ask him what was in his trunk at the beginning of his shift, only if there was anything inside it.
The details of that conversation, and the nature of Petrella’s intent in retrieving the bike, remain unclear.
Regardless, when Lough was criminally charged with embezzlement, Petrella wasn’t shy in expressing his belief that such a move was unfair. As Lough was being investigated, Petrella told the grand jury hearing his case that Colon knew the mother of the boy who had possessed the mini-bike before Lough had seized it — intimating that the connection had prompted Internal Affairs to push for criminal prosecution, instead of in-house discipline.
Colon says he was acquainted with the boy’s mother, as he is with many community members, but that allegations that such a relationship influenced Lough’s treatment are absurd. “Some officers would like those rumors to be true, but there’s just no basis there,” says Colon.
To be sure, the nature of Colon’s role automatically generates detractors among the rank-and-file. For this reason, Colon says he was initially reluctant to take the job. “But I’m a soldier,” he says. “I was willing [to], for the good of the 500 members of the department.”
Petrella says he didn’t mean any harm by his comment. “It was something I felt in my heart the grand jury should know,” he says.
But even after scoring third-highest in the department on his written promotion exam the following year and making sergeant — becoming one of the first 10 to be promoted to the rank since the testing scandal — Petrella felt that he had fallen out of favor.