Did Petrella deserve to be fired?
The question of whether the charges against Pet¬rella would have warranted termination, had they been heard in a Bill of Rights hearing, is a matter of speculation.
In an August 2005 review of the charges, following Petrella’s claim for unemployment benefits, the state Department of Labor and Training’s Board of Review concluded that the underlying allegations against him lacked credible evidence.
Only one — rather slight — departmental violation was confirmed.
In agreeing to meet with Lough in Cranston, Petrella had left city limits while on-duty, an action at odds with departmental rules. (The parking lot where they met is a half-mile outside of Providence.) During the hearing, the Board of Review’s chief legal counsel noted the charge’s peripheral nature. In his own experiences, he said, he’d often seen Providence police cars pulling in for pizza on Narragansett Boulevard, across the Cranston border.
“There are no legitimate reasons why they came after [Petrella] to deny him employment, but they sure tried to find them,” says Harwood, who first represented Petrella during divorce proceedings in Family Court.
Nevertheless, the Board of Review’s findings have no bearing on Petrella’s employment. By law, the Officer’s Bill of Rights hearing is the only way to resolve matters of officer discipline and dismissal, though recommendations from such hearings can be appealed to Superior Court. And though the Bill of Rights is frequently assailed for offering officers extrajudicial protection, in this case, since Petrella missed the deadline, it has worked against him.
Other officers who have run into trouble in recent years have suffered less.
Take, for example, former chief Urbano Prignano who, during the Plunder Dome case in 2002, admitted helping certain officers cheat on their promotional exams — and who, despite the city’s attempts to revoke his pension, continues to receive an annual $64,620 check.
(Since Prignano never faced criminal charges, his pension remains intact; A Providence Retirement Board hearing on the matter, slated for last week, has been postponed until November 28.)
Or the two other sergeants, implicated in the testing scandal, who, albeit demoted, retained their jobs (two others accused of cheating were able to retire with their pensions intact). Or the 2001 case of one mounted patrolman, who was videotaped using his horse to shove another officer into a parked vehicle in front of a downtown crowd (and who was accused of punching and pepper-spraying the officer). Although terminated, the officer was reinstated with a $165,000 settlement last year, according to the ProJo, after a judge ruled that the lawyer who originally defended him had a conflict of interest.
And while Esserman has overseen significant improvements, the department suffered an embarrassment when federal drug charges were dismissed in August against Khalid Mason, who has claimed that Providence police and his defense lawyer, John M. Cicilline, the mayor’s brother, tried to extort him. The charges were dropped when surveillance notes related to the case were found after Providence detectives had testified that they didn’t exist.
Regardless, Petrella’s legal options may be limited, says Harwood. The Superior Court lawsuit against the Fraternal Order of Police — which Harwood hopes will be heard in 2008 — is Petrella’s best chance for redress. Still, say his lawyer, “I would hope someone in the administration would reexamine the case and say what’s been done is an injustice.”
Petrella has all but given up hope for such a resolution. A letter in which Harwood asked Esserman to reconsider his situation, Petrella says, didn’t receive a response. “This chief has never walked a beat in his life, and he’s cleaning house the wrong way,” says the former officer, who reserves a particular bitterness for the chief and his refusal to intervene in this case.
Yet according to Major Thomas Oates, who heads the Providence Police Department’s administrative division, several other incidents have surfaced in recent decades in which officers have missed deadlines and been denied Bill of Rights hearings. None of the officers, to his knowledge, kept their jobs. “If it gets to an offense egregious enough for termination,” Oates says, “I doubt the department would simply take the officer back.”