fb-pixel

Critics say a Rhode Island law protects bad cops. It also helps good ones

'Just like you have bad cops, you’re going to have bad chiefs'

Demonstrators faced off with Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence June 5.
Demonstrators faced off with Rhode Island State Police on the steps of the State House during a Black Lives Matter protest in Providence June 5.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CRANSTON — Of the many disturbing findings in a scathing 2015 assessment of the Cranston Police Department that was conducted by the Rhode Island State Police, the case involving then-Captain Todd Patalano stands out.

Patalano was a decorated member of the department who oversaw the professional standards unit, which investigates complaints against officers. But he found himself at odds with the police chief in 2010, and was subjected to baseless allegations that landed him on paid leave for 22 months.

The State Police investigated, and ultimately cleared Patalano of any wrongdoing.

“Based on the facts and circumstances, we found gross mismanagement in many forms, including intimidation and [what was] described by many as bullying,” the State Police’s report concluded. Cranston paid Patalano $300,000 to settle a lawsuit.

Advertisement



Today, his attorney credits a 44-year-old state law as one of the key reasons that Patalano was allowed the due process necessary to prove his case.

That law, known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, is now coming under intense scrutiny after the case of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer pinned him to the street with a knee on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. Chiefs across Rhode Island argue that it hinders their ability to discipline or fire troubled cops.

But defenders of the officers’ bill of rights say cases like Patalano’s highlight the need for police officers to be afforded protections in a profession where crossing the boss can have severe career consequences.

“Just like you have bad cops, you’re going to have bad chiefs,” said Joseph Penza, a labor attorney who defended Patalano.

Under the officers’ bill of rights, a police chief can impose a “summary punishment” of two days suspension without pay for “minor violations of departmental rules and regulations.” Any suspension of longer than two days triggers a hearing by a disciplinary panel made up of three active or retired officers.

Advertisement



Cops can be placed on leave for longer periods if they’re subject to misdemeanor or felony investigations or charged with a crime. But chiefs say the bill of rights heavily favors officers, and it can be costly because most officers continue to be paid while suspended unless they are charged with a felony or convicted of a misdemeanor.

Law enforcement officials in Rhode Island say that if an incident like the death of George Floyd occurred in this state, the officers’ bill of rights would have stopped them from immediately terminating the officer, as was done in Minneapolis.

Now, Rhode Island lawmakers are racing to change the law, and some Providence officials are calling for it to be repealed completely. In a sign of how serious the House of Representatives is about reforming the law, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello agreed to cosponsor legislation Thursday that would give chiefs the ability to suspend officers for 30 days, and expand the disciplinary panel from three members to five.

“The bill is a product of work that has been done bringing parties together to see where these laws could be updated,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in a prepared statement. “The speaker is encouraged by the various interests coming to the table.”

In the other chamber, state Senator Harold Metts, a Providence Democrat, will oversee a 13-member commission designed to study the officer’s bill of rights. A report is expected by next February.

Advertisement



But Penza, the labor lawyer, said the General Assembly should take a hard look at Patalano’s case before hastily making changes to the law.

In 2014, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung asked the State Police to conduct an investigation of his city’s police department after a parking ticket scandal that involved officers aggressively issuing tickets in neighborhoods of councilors who voted against a new police union contract.

The probe expanded to cover a wide range of issues in the department, and the State Police ultimately determined that “Most of the Department’s troubles can be attributed to the poor leadership by the Department’s top officers, political interference and influence by Mayor Fung and members of his administration.”

Patalano’s case spanned several years, and involved secret recordings of then-Chief Marco Palombo, private detectives hired by the department to follow Patalano while he was out of work with an injury, and a suspension that lasted 22 months. He has since been promoted to major, and declined to comment for this story. But he allowed Penza to speak on his behalf.

Palombo initially tried to suspend Patalano for 90 days in 2011 for allegedly mismanaging the professional standards unit, and Patalano requested an officers’ bill of rights hearing. The hearings stalled, and Patalano was required to remain on paid leave pending the outcome of a criminal investigation that was allegedly to be conducted by the State Police.

Advertisement



But Patalano remained on leave after the State Police found no wrongdoing, and the State Police investigation of the department later revealed that Patalano had come under fire internally because he questioned the promotion process in the department.

“A thorough review of the circumstances surrounding Captain Patalano’s case revealed that the allegations against him were baseless,” the State Police wrote in its report. Palombo was placed on leave at the beginning of the State Police investigation, and then retired.

Without the officers’ bill of rights, Penza said, it’s likely that Patalano would have had no recourse for his suspension. Even under the proposed changes to the bill, he would have been suspended for up to 30 days without pay.

“They wouldn’t need to do an investigation at all,” Penza said.

Penza, who has represented police officers from most Rhode Island communities in bill of rights hearings over the past 44 years, said he understands why lawmakers are aggressively pushing for changes, but he argued that the law “has worked just fine.”

Before making changes, Penza said the General Assembly should take time to learn about what the bill does.

As it stands now, “This is like talking about changing NFL rules, and having members of the NHL and MLB on the committee,” Penza said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.