2011-09-29 / Front Page

Police chief in middle of homicide controversy

BY TIM RIEL

An autopsy report was recently released by the Connecticut medical examiner that said the death of Ryan O’Loughlin – who died after an altercation with Westerly police officers while Jamestown’s new police chief, Edward Mello, was still in command there – was caused by “blunt force trauma.”

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said Tuesday that the town stands by its choice to name Mello to the top police post. He added that the search committee was well aware of the incident – which happened in June – during interviews with Mello.

“People have limited knowledge and limited understanding of police activities and the law enforcement command structure,” Keiser said. “The officers were not directed to manhandle someone they were trying to arrest. If they did in this case, then that will be dealt with accordingly.”

Mello also said that he made sure the search committee was aware of the situation. “I discussed it in general terms with the search committee,” he said. “It is obviously a case that is very public and I certainly wanted to talk about it.”

Keiser also said that he believes Mello is focused on his current role as Jamestown’s chief of police and won’t need to take a leave of absence during the Rhode Island State Police’s investigation, or if the case were to go to a grand jury.

Mello added that it wouldn’t be a distraction to his day-to-day operations. He said that he is keeping an eye on the situation, but it wouldn’t affect how he does his job on the island.

The incident happened early in the morning on June 9, when Westerly offi cers responded to a disturbance call at the Perks & Corks bar in downtown Westerly. According to police reports, O’Loughlin, 34, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. To get him into custody, police allegedly struck him three times with billy clubs in the legs and used pepper spray to subdue him.

After his arrest, O’Loughlin spent the night in jail and was transported to District Court to be arraigned at 8:45 a.m. the next day. O’Loughlin was pronounced dead at 5:10 p.m. later that day at Pequot Medical Center in Groton, Conn.

According to Mark Dana, a lawyer for O’Loughlin’s family, an autopsy was released to the victim’s family that showed inaccuracies with the police report. Dana said that the autopsy showed that O’Loughlin suffered a dozen bruising blows, including three to the head. It also revealed that O’Loughlin’s liver was lacerated and 350 milliliters of blood went into his peritoneal cavity.

“What that means,” said Dana, “is that 350 milliliters of blood was outside of his organs and into his chest cavity.”

Dana added, “According to the autopsy, the manner was blunt force abdominal trauma, and the cause was homicide.”

Although Dana said Mello will most likely not face criminal charges – if it goes to a grand jury, the three arresting Westerly officers would be arraigned for the death of O’Loughlin – Dana said that the victim’s family would pursue a civil suit against Mello.

“Shorty after Ryan’s death, he took to the airwaves and said his officers used reasonable force,” said Dana. “The only reason he would say that is to protect his officers.”

Dana also added that Mello said repeatedly that the death might have been caused by a pre-existing injury or a “reaction to the pepper spray,” which Dana said the autopsy disproved.

“My issue with [Mello] is what I believe to be irresponsible comments,” Dana said. “He had no basis to make those statements.”

Mello said he doesn’t regret the comments he said following O’Loughlin’s death. He added that when everything is hashed out, he believes his officers used appropriate force. “It’s a very unfortunate consequence and a very unfortunate outcome for everyone involved,” said Mello. “But I’m confi- dent that the grand jury will find that the officers responded appropriately.”

Mello said he contacted the family “the day after O’Loughlin had passed,” and even spoke to an uncle a few times over the next “week or so.”

“It’s important to know that I took this matter very seriously,” Mello said, “There was a lot of unknown circumstances.” Following the incident, Mello said he was the one who contacted the Rhode Island State Police and the attorney general’s office to begin an investigation into O’Loughlin’s death.

Mello was named Jamestown’s police chief at a special Town Council meeting on June 27, less than two weeks after the incident. “I want to assure you that I will approach this responsibility with the same integrity, diligence, vigor and honesty that I have applied for the past 23 years,” he said after the unanimous vote by the council.

Mello addressed letters and emails that were sent to the Jamestown Press regarding the situation that were signed “Anonymous.” As one letter read, it wasn’t signed because, “Most unfortunately, violent retribution is a fact of life when an individual takes on the police.”

“Retribution by police officers, just like excessive force…is completely unacceptable,” Mello said.

“[Mello] wasn’t there, so in no way could he be responsible for what happened,” Keiser said. “Secondly, he couldn’t have prevented it either. Sometimes unfortunate things happen lower down the chain of command that a chief can have no control over. It’s how he reacts to it that’s important.”

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