PROVIDENCE — A day of chaos sparked by the theft of a state police cruiser early Thursday ended with one man dead, a woman hospitalized, and the man accused of stealing the cruiser still at large.
The events began around 9 a.m., with the report of a stolen state police cruiser. They culminated with Providence police and Rhode Island State Police surrounding a white pickup truck, and multiple officers firing into the truck at close range.
According to state police Col. Ann Assumpico, an unnamed trooper was driving Donald Morgan, 35, to a court appearance on obstruction and possession of a stolen motor vehicle charges.
When the trooper stopped at a crash on Route 146 and exited the car, Morgan, still handcuffed, got into the driver’s seat and drove away with the cruiser. The trooper’s weapon was not taken. Laura Meade Kirk, a spokeswoman for the state police, said she could not comment on questions related to procedures for the transport of prisoners. She would not comment on how many troopers would be subject to the standard administrative review required under state law following a shooting.
The police later located the cruiser at 45 Vineyard St., in Providence’s West End. Morgan, who has a lengthy criminal record, remained at large. One auto-body shop owner reported that 40 to 50 police officers and state troopers descended on the area with dogs, searching for Morgan.
“He is obviously still somewhere in the area,” Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said late Thursday at a news conference.
About an hour and a half after the cruiser was stolen, according to Cranston Police Col. Michael Winquist, a call went out across police radio channels asking officers across the state to be on the lookout for a white Ford F150 with something “hanging out the back.”
The broadcast led Winquist to believe that Morgan might be hiding in the bed of the truck, he said
A Cranston officer saw a white Ford F150 driving “erratically” in the city shortly afterward, and attempted to pull the driver over. The truck stopped, but when the Cranston officer got out of his car, the driver “took off at a decent clip,” Winquist said. The truck swerved, made illegal turns, and sped past stop signs evading the police.
“The driver was showing a total disregard for public safety,” Winquist said. The officer pursued the car and called the station, Winquist said.
The Cranston officer lost sight of the truck, and Providence police then picked up the pursuit, which led onto the Route 95 north ramp behind the Providence Place Mall.
They were going so fast that “they were almost endangering their lives,” Perry said. “I knew something was going on.”
Up ahead, the state police were stopping all traffic, Perry said, and he assumed at first they were clearing the way for a dignitary.
Then, he heard a noise — “like a pop or crash” — as state police and Providence police converged, guns drawn, on a white pickup truck. “I pulled the camera out,” Perry said, and held it up through the sunroof to capture whatever was happening.
Perry’s video captures at least six officers firing upon the truck at close range. The truck rolls forward and a volley of at least eight gunshots is heard, followed by truck’s engine revving and a cloud of smoke.
“It happened so fast,” Perry said. All of the discharge from gunfire appeared to come from outside the truck, Perry said.
Law enforcement officials later said that the dead man was not Morgan.
A woman riding in the passenger seat of the white pickup truck remained at Miriam Hospital in unknown condition late Thursday, Paré said. Earlier in the day, police listed her as in critical condition.
The state medical examiner removed the dead man’s body late Thursday.
Asked whether the fatal shooting of the man in the pickup truck was a tragic error, Paré said, “No, it is not.”
“We’re investigating … why this individual did not stop and why police officers had to use deadly force,” Paré said.
He said he did not know what relationship the woman had with the driver of the pickup, but that “she and her behavior are part of the investigation.”
No police officers were injured. Paré said several of the Providence officers involved in the shooting were wearing body cameras.
Juan Carlos Ardaya, of Providence, said he’d just left Providence Place mall and was taking the entrance ramp on to Route 95 north when he saw the white pickup truck stuck in traffic.
And police officers, guns drawn, approaching the truck.
The truck’s windows were dark, Ardaya said, and he couldn’t see the occupants inside. There were state troopers and Providence police officers, and others who appeared to be in plainclothes, all coming toward the truck.
Ardaya said he saw the police try to open the truck’s door, but it was locked. There were police at the front and back of the truck, which was boxed in by vehicles, and Ardaya said he could hear them telling the occupants to get out of the truck.
“They were insisting. They were asking them to get out,” Ardaya said, through a Spanish translator by phone.
Instead, the truck’s driver went in reverse and slammed into the car behind it, Ardaya said. Then, the truck drove forward and hit the car in front, he said.
The truck drove back and forth twice, Ardaya said, as the driver tried to escape. Other motorists had gotten out of their vehicles and were standing nearby watching the scene, Ardaya said.
The truck backed up and “the policeman behind him had to move out of his way,” Ardaya said.
“That’s when they started shooting,” Ardaya said. The truck “was putting in danger the people in front of the car.”
Ardaya said he dropped down. “I was afraid,” he said. “At that moment, you start thinking this is the end. You think about your family. You think this could end right now. This was no computer game. This was reality.”
The gunfire stopped, and he raised up his cellphone camera.
The truck rolled forward, he said, and the police fired again. The truck began smoking, and the horn blared, Ardaya said. He heard someone say: “Everything’s over.”
Within a few minutes, the police moved the traffic away from the scene. Ardaya said he never saw the people inside the truck.
In 2014, Providence police adopted a general order on the use of force based on Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies standards.
The 11-page document breaks down appropriate situations for use of “lethal force” defined as “any tactic or use of force that is likely to cause serious bodily injury or death.”
Officers are only permitted to shoot at moving vehicles when it “necessary to stop a threat.” The officer is to focus on stopping the person of interest, not to disable the vehicle, according to the order. The state police follow a similar standard.
Also that year the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Plumhoff v. Rickard that when police officers in Tennessee fired “multiple rounds into a car” in a high-speed chase, killing a driver and a passenger, they did not violate the law. The use of force “was not unreasonable” given the public safety risk posed by a reckless driver, the justices found in a unanimous decision.
The state’s top prosecutors were at the scene Thursday, as the attorney general’s office is responsible for investigating all officer-involved shootings.
The incident closed Route 95 in both directions for a time. Traffic began flowing on the highway at a very slow place around noon.
Providence public school officials locked down four West End schools in the area of Bucklin Street on Thursday morning as word of a dangerous incident emerged.
The lockdown ended sometime after 11 a.m., Hart said.