Off-duty Providence cop who punched his political opponent at rally testifies he was armed

Providence Police Officer Jeann Lugo took the witness stand in his own defense on Thursday, attempting to explain why he punched a political candidate during an abortion rights rally at the State House while off-duty.

Lugo was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct for the chaotic incident that played out on the night of June 24. Video footage caught him hitting Jennifer Rourke, who was then his Democratic opponent in the race for state Senate District 29. Lugo, who was running as a Republican, ended his campaign shortly after.

In Kent County District Court, Lugo's attorney, Daniel Griffin, played the video on a projector, pausing at various frames to detail the scene. Lugo said he went to the rally, despite being pro-life, because it is "best to hear both sides of the aisle." Lugo claimed he did not know Rourke at that point, and was listening to rally speakers from a distance while sitting at the Cheesecake Factory at the mall nearby.

"I was there just to observe," Lugo said, noting that he "wanted to stay as far away as possible." However, he added that when he saw the crowd moving together, he approached the scene.

Lugo, who was not in uniform at the rally, said he was armed with his personal firearm — a Sig Sauer 39P8, which was not his service weapon — and at no point during the commotion did he identify himself as a police officer.

Once Lugo was at the State House steps, a man named Josh Mello was punched by a still-unidentified man in a green jacket. Video showed that as Lugo jumped into the fray, in what he described as an attempt to aid Mello, Rourke apparently attempted to restrain Lugo.

"It felt like someone had two hands on, I believe it was my right arm," Lugo said. Eventually, Lugo is shown punching Rourke, first with what he described as a "distractionary strike" — a tactic he said he learned in the police academy to get a person's attention. Next, Lugo threw another punch at the top of Rourke's head.

At one point, video showed another man in the mix — one wearing a Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt — who picked Lugo up in the air. Off-camera, Lugo said he was thrown to the ground and assaulted, sustaining multiple spinal fractures for which he was later treated at a hospital.

Though Lugo said he was attempting to arrest the man in green, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Carr Guglielmo during questioning emphasized his lack of a cruiser or handcuffs, and that Lugo never identified himself in the moment, despite testifying that he had a badge and a police ID.

That night, Rhode Island State Police arrested two people — Nicholas Morell and Jessica Burton — the latter of whom was Lugo's campaign aide. After, Lugo said he followed state police in an effort to bail her out.

The following morning, Lugo learned he was suspended and was arraigned.

Middletown Police Lt. David Bissonnette, who has been a use of force instructor since 2004 and has taught at the Providence Police Academy, provided an adamant defense of Lugo's actions and his decision not to identify himself, citing police policy.

Much focus was placed on Section 202.2 of the department's policy, which says officers "shall take 'action' to minimize the risk of serious bodily harm or death" when they see a threat. However, action isn't just physical — it can also mean alerting other officers. Taking action "shall not require the officers to place themselves in a position of peril," the policy reads.

Both the prosecution and the defense attempted to use the policy to their advantage when reviewing Lugo's actions.

Providence Police Maj. Henry Remolina, who was called by the prosecution, noted that the policy didn't require Lugo to become physically involved in the situation, and said that identifying one's self properly can be useful to officers on the scene attempting to determine someone's role in the situation at hand.

While Guglielmo said there was no evidence to indicate Rourke knew Lugo was a police officer, Bissonnette, during his time on the stand, testified that Rourke recognized Lugo. The detail caught Guglielmo off guard, and he said it hadn't been in the record.

Judge Joseph T. Houlihan is set to make his decision on Nov. 14.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Jeann Lugo says he was armed, did not ID as a cop during rally assault