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Sunday, May 12, 2024

R.I. House approves reforms to Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights

‘A long time coming’ 

By Christopher Shea, Rhode Island Current

Good cops should have no cause for concern
After nearly two hours of debate and strong opposition from progressive lawmakers, the Rhode Island House of Representatives Thursday approved bills to reform the state law governing the process for investigating and disciplining police officers accused of misconduct.

The House voted 58-14 to pass a bill by Deputy Speaker Raymond Hull and 59-13 in favor of identical legislation sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggeiro that updates the controversial Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR).

Adopted in 1976, LEOBOR protects police officers from being fired immediately or put on leave without pay when misconduct charges against them arise. The law has been greatly criticized by social justice advocates, who say it’s unfair for police to review internal misconduct.

Attempts to reform the law stalled in previous years due to disagreements over who would sit on an expanded five-member panel that rules on any disciplinary action. General Assembly leaders finally reached a compromise earlier this week

“Reform to LEOBOR has been a long time coming and this legislation will not only deliver transparency and accountability to the public, but it will also help police departments across the state root out misconduct in a fair and just way,” Hull said in a statement Thursday.

Under the existing law, officers accused of misconduct appear before a panel made up of three active or retired police officers — with one picked by the chief, one by the officer under investigation, and a third chosen by both or a presiding Superior Court judge.

The hearing panel under Hull and Ruggerio’s legislation would still contain three officers, but they would instead be randomly chosen by the Police Officers Commission on Standards and Training. The panel would also include a retired judge and an attorney “selected in consultation with the Supreme Court’s committee on racial and ethnic fairness.”

The amended legislation also removes the prohibition preventing police chiefs from making public statements about cases that have not yet had a LEOBOR hearing or releasing video evidence.

Both bills allow police chiefs to suspend officers for a longer amount of time: five days for those accused of minor infractions and 14 days for those facing more serious complaints, such as excessive force or felonies. Suspension without pay is now two days before the right to a LEOBOR hearing kicks in. 

House Judiciary Chairman Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, called the changes “a major improvement” to what’s on the books now.

“This legislation is born of collective, productive, researched compromise,” Craven said. “That’s the mission of this body — this House. I believe in my heart this is the answer to police misconduct.”

Progressive lawmakers lauded General Assembly leadership for the work it took to craft the legislation, but said they felt it did not go far enough.

“Within this bill we are still allowing for those special privileges that an officer can exercise in regards to avoiding accountability,” said Rep. David Morales, a Providence Democrat.

Progressive lawmakers wanted chiefs to have the ability to immediately terminate an officer for violating the law. Craven told lawmakers that officers charged with a felony under the compromise legislation can only be served with an immediate suspension and are still allowed access to medical benefits.

Rep. José Batista, a Providence Democrat, proposed an amendment during the House debate to give police chiefs the ability to immediately fire an officer found to have used deadly force in violation of departmental rules. 

Batista said the Minneapolis Police Department used such a provision when it promptly fired white officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, a Black man, in May 2020. Under the terms of the bill passed by the House Tuesday, progressives said an officer like Chauvin could not be immediately terminated in Rhode Island.

But many lawmakers told Batista and other progressives that the floor amendment, if passed, would be unconstitutional.

“Folks, there’s a supremacy clause in the Constitution,” said Rep. Matthew Dawson, an East Providence Democrat. “We have to respect the laws of the federal government — there’s also the 14th Amendment, people have the right to due process.

“There’s also the Fifth Amendment in the real Bill of Rights,” he continued.

Batista responded that police chiefs, under his amendment, would still have to abide by state labor laws and give officers the chance to defend themselves.

“All of that is still applicable — that’s due process,” Batista said.

Progressives and members of the Rhode Island Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus initially called for LEOBOR hearings to be held concurrently with a criminal trial, but Batista said they wanted to narrow down their demands to “be more effective.”

The caucus held a press conference just ahead of Thursday’s vote where members said they would “not support change just for change’s sake.” 

The House ultimately voted 47-25 to table Batista’s floor amendment.

After the amendment failed, Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC Director Harrison Tuttle issued a statement where he expressed “extreme disappointment” with legislators.

“Despite the haunting potential that a police officer unjustly murders a citizen, a super majority Democrat Rhode Island House of Representatives expressed, through their actions, that they do not value the lives of Rhode Island residents if it comes at the cost of ensuring that police in this state are protected under LEOBOR,” Tuttle said.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha commended the House for passing LEOBOR reform.

“This legislation will help law enforcement better serve their communities and hold accountable those who break the public’s trust,” Neronha said in a statement . “While there is undoubtedly work left to be done, I applaud the General Assembly, community members, law enforcement agencies and others who have contributed to this important effort to improve policing in Rhode Island.”

Hull’s bill now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. Ruggerio’s bill, which cleared the Senate in late January, will likely go before the full chamber again some time next week.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.