NSPD named in racial profiling suit filed by Connecticut man

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NORTH SMITHFIELD — Police in North Smithfield and Woonsocket are accused of targeting and detaining a man based on his race in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The suit, filed by Bryan Thomas of Connecticut, alleges that officers violated his civil rights when he stopped to buy lunch in town in 2019 while looking for an apartment. Defendants include the town of North Smithfield and the city of Woonsocket, as well as individual North Smithfield officers Justin Switzer and Ian Bissonette, and Woonsocket Detective Jason Berthelette.

Thomas charges that police violated his Constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures, and his right to equal protection under the state and federal Constitutions.

The accusation dates back to Sept. 22, 2019, when Switzer reportedly stopped Thomas, a black man, as he pulled into the Stop & Shop parking lot in North Smithfield around 2 p.m., for a broken taillight. According to the suit, Switzer questioned Thomas about his whereabouts and asked if he had illegal narcotics, including heroin and cocaine, in his vehicle.

The officer then demanded to search the car, according to the lawsuit. Thomas states that the taillight itself on his car still worked, and he refused to consent to a search. He was reportedly removed from the vehicle, and about an hour later, Bisonette and other officers arrived at the scene, along with Berthelette and a police dog.

According to the plaintiff, he was held in the back of a hot cruiser for close to two hours through the search, which also damaged his vehicle. He was given a summons to appear in Municipal Court for the broken taillight, which was dismissed after Thomas confirmed that the light worked.

Thomas says that the incident left him shaken, fearful, and unable to concentrate, eventually causing him to get fired from a job he held at the time of the stop.

A civilian complaint filed with NSPD reportedly determined that there were no departmental violations.

It is not the first time North Smithfield police have come up in discussions on racial profiling. For three consecutive years, a study out of Central Connecticut State University has found that North Smithfield had a statistically significant racial and ethnic disparity when it comes to traffic stops.

In response to the most recent findings, Chief Tim Lafferty told NRI NOW last year that NSPD as something of an outlier in such studies, noting that the town’s proximity to Woonsocket means that officers spend the vast majority of their time dealing with those from out-of-town, leading to a unique situation in terms of demographic data.

Lafferty did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the recent suit.

Thomas is seeking unspecified damages and for Judge William E. Smith to declare the search unconstitutional.

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