PROVIDENCE — The majority of police chiefs in Rhode Island believe state lawmakers should make changes to a 44-year-old state law that functions as the bible for officer discipline, dictating everything from how long cops can be suspended to who sits on disciplinary boards.
The death of a Black man in Minnesota at the hands of white police officers, and the nationwide civil unrest the followed the incident, has prompted elected officials across the state to call for a review of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR).
So the Globe asked every local police chief in the state whether the law should be changed, and how they would change it. Ten chiefs did not respond.
- 21 of the 28 police chiefs who responded to the survey said they believe that at least some provisions in the law should be changed.
- Two chiefs, North Kingstown Chief Patrick Flanagan and New Shoreham Chief Vincent Carlone, said the law does not have to be altered at all.
- Six chiefs said one change they favor is to allow chiefs to suspend officers for more than two days before the officers are entitled to a disciplinary hearing.
- Five chiefs said the three-member panel of active or retired officers charged with handing out discipline should be changed.
“We all understand that employees have certain safeguards to protect against unfair termination or other disciplinary action," said North Providence Chief Arthur Martins, "but a constructive conversation can be had to alleviate some of the layers yet allowing the protections to remain.”
That conversation has often been a third rail in Rhode Island politics, with chiefs struggling to find even a single sponsor for legislation that would change the officers’ bill of rights. The sprawling bill was approved in 1976 in an attempt to give cops a fair shot against management during disciplinary hearings, according to Joseph Penza, an attorney who has represented officers in nearly every community over the last 40 years.
But the killing of George Floyd, a Minnesota man whose death was caught on video when a police officer pinned him down with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes, has placed a spotlight on officer discipline. Some local governments around the country are mulling plans to defund their police departments after protests in recent weeks.
In Rhode Island, state Senator Harold Metts, a Providence Democrat, has been appointed to oversee a legislative commission that will review the officers’ bill of rights. Metts, who is Black, has vowed to sponsor legislation making changes to the bill, but it’s unclear if he’ll wait until after the commission submits its findings.
It’s no surprise that the majority of police chiefs in the state would support altering the officers’ bill of rights, since the law blocks them from suspending officers without pay for more than two days no matter the infraction. After that, chiefs are required to follow procedures spelled out in the law, which largely allow officers to continue to receive benefits even if they are charged with a crime.
Vincent Ragosta Jr., an attorney who represents police departments in officer misconduct cases, turned heads last week when he said that Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with killing Floyd, could not have been fired immediately if the incident occurred in Rhode Island.
“I would like to see chiefs be given more latitude to be able to remove a problem officer from employment in a quicker fashion,” said Foster Police Chief David Breit.
Michael Imondi, president of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police, said the law is designed to provide due process to officers, and called it a “false narrative” to believe that it’s difficult to discipline officers. He said most officers who face “serious, credible charges” typically resign or agree to punishment before a case goes before a bill of rights panel.
Many chiefs said they aren’t looking to repeal the officers’ bill of rights, but they would like periodical reviews of the law, or to have specific provisions removed.
“I believe in the concept of the bill of rights for a police officer who has been accused of a violation to be judged by his peers,” Providence Police Chief Colonel Hugh Clements said. “That being said, there have been several amendments and modifications to the legislation made over the years. It is certainly ripe for a well-rounded committee with representatives by all who may be affected by LEOBOR to review it.”
East Greenwich Police Chief Stephen Brown said a committee of stakeholders should be appointed, and given the authority to “determine what is working, and what is not, and then recommend changes.”
“For LEOBOR to be fair to everyone involved, it needs to become a living document that changes with the times,” Brown said.
Although the majority of chiefs support changes to the law, several find themselves in a difficult position because they have previously served as president of their police officers’ union.
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey, who was president of his local union for 20 years, said he thinks it would be best to work with the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association to “review the entire statute and recommend and make the changes collectively with all the departments in the state on the same page.”
Lacey said he’d like to see statewide processes for how “use of force” incidents are reviewed and how recruits are tested. He said the state should also “unify our in-service training program,” similar to other states in the region.
But other chiefs maintain the system works.
“I have seen how it works from both sides,” said North Kingstown Police Chief Patrick Flanagan, who previously served as a union president for 10 years. He said he doesn’t believe changes are necessary.
Vincent Carlone, who leads the New Shoreham police department, said the system has worked in every disciplinary case he has been involved in.
“I think the bigger problem is those in the administration of police departments that have difficulty understanding the bill of rights,” Carlone said. “If the proper procedure is not followed, the case ends up problematic.”