In 2011, officials in the Pawtucket police department thought they had strong case to terminate a troubled officer.
After all, the officer, Nicholas Laprade, had just been convicted of disorderly conduct for exposing himself to two women while he was off duty and sitting in his personal vehicle. The department filed an 18-count complaint against Laprade with a three-member hearing panel comprised of active cops, which rules on police disciplinary matters under the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
But a procedural error made by the city led the disciplinary panel to decide that it would not consider Laprade’s criminal conviction during the hearing, and a Superior Court justice later ruled that the panel was not required to accept the conviction as evidence. That gave the department little chance of firing him.
The process would last more than three years, cost Pawtucket hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees as well as wages paid to Laprade while he was on administrative leave, and ultimately required the Rhode Island Supreme Court to overturn the Superior Court’s ruling before Laprade finally resigned from his job.
Years later, even though the city eventually prevailed, Laprade’s case remains an infamous example of how the officers’ bill of rights can be used to protect employees who would likely be fired if they were in another profession.
Now, as state lawmakers consider overhauling the officers’ bill of rights, the disciplinary panel that cops in Rhode Island are entitled to request for all suspensions that last more than two days is coming under new scrutiny, with chiefs, lawyers, and experts arguing that the hearings too often favor officers.
“It’s one of the worst impediments to accountability in any of the statutory bills of rights in the country,” said Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
The bill of rights and the disciplinary panel have their defenders, including a few Rhode Island police chiefs who say the system ultimately works, as in Laprade’s eventual resignation. What’s driving the impetus for change now is the societal upheaval over the death of George Floyd and renewed scrutiny of police procedures -- and punishment.
Rhode Island is one of at least a dozen states that have an officers’ bill of rights on the books, and Walker said others have special provisions on officers’ rights enshrined in laws under different names. He also noted that union contracts often have the most “offensive provisions” when it comes to police accountability.
While the laws were designed to give officers an extra layer of due process and to protect them from harsh discipline from their superiors, Walker said questionable provisions in the laws make it more difficult to punish officers.
- In Maryland, police officers aren’t required to be interrogated in an investigation for up to five days while they obtain a lawyer.
- In California, a police officer cannot be punished or demoted if an investigation is not completed within one year.
- In Florida, officers can file a civil suit against citizens who file complaints for “abridgment of the officer’s civil rights arising out of the officer’s performance of official duties, or for filing a complaint against the officer which the person knew was false when it was filed.”
Walker said Rhode Island’s disciplinary panel is among the most egregious provisions he has seen.
The law allows a charged officer to select one of the three current or active police officers who will hear the case. One member is chosen by management, and the chairperson is jointly selected by the two other members. The panel has the power to “sustain, modify in whole or in part, or reverse the complaint or charges of the investigating authority,” according to state law. Decisions can be appealed to the Superior Court.
In a Globe survey of every police chief in the state earlier this month, the majority of chiefs said they’d like to see changes made to the officers’ bill of rights. The two most-common changes they cited were the ability to suspend officers for a longer period of time, and a shift in the makeup of the disciplinary panel.
Under current law, a chief has the ability to suspend an officer for up to two days without pay before the officer can request a hearing under the bill of rights. Because the hearing process can take time and be costly, some chiefs say they have opted to impose the two-day suspensions even when harsher discipline is warranted.
North Providence Police Chief Arthur Matins said he’d like to see the number of board members increase from three to five, with a retired judge being one of the additions. He said a sitting city or town council member of the municipality where the officer is being investigated could be another choice.
State Representative Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, has already introduced legislation to make a slew of changes to the bill of rights, including expanding the disciplinary panel to five members. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello agreed to sponsor the bill.
Under Williams’ proposal, the disciplinary panel would include two active or retired officers – one selected by a police chief and the other selected by the accused officer – as well as a member selected by the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, one member selected by the executive director of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, and a chairperson selected by the presiding justice of the Superior Court.
Williams said the changes are necessary because, “if the murder of George Floyd occurred here in Rhode Island, none of those officers would have been held accountable for their monstrous actions.” While a department would have been allowed to attempt to terminate the officers, a chief in Rhode Island would not be allowed to immediately fire them, which is what happened in Minneapolis.
“With the whole world finally standing up, recognizing, mobilizing, and protesting against the trials and tribulations that people of color suffer on a daily basis at the hands of unfit law enforcement officers, now is the time to reform our state’s law so that rogue law enforcement officers can no longer hide behind a system of protection while also dragging down good and honorable cops who truly do protect and serve our communities without prejudice and bigotry in their hearts,” Williams said in a prepared statement.
Supporters of the bill of rights argue that Lapadre’s situation is an outlier.
In his case, the disciplinary panel relied on advice from its legal counsel to not recognize his criminal conviction because the department failed to submit evidence and a witness list at least 10 days before the hearing. A Superior Court judge later sided with the hearing panel.
In the end, the legal process worked because the Supreme Court eventually overturned the decision, according to Joseph Penza, who was Lapadre’s attorney and has represented officers in bill of rights cases for more than 40 years.
“Due process doesn’t happen overnight,” Penza said.
Penza maintains that the disciplinary panels are fair, and they occasionally hand out suspensions that are longer than what chiefs have requested. He called attempts to change the bill of rights a “complete overreaction.”
“I haven’t seen any situations where I’ve had a guy who is guilty as hell, and I’ve been able to pull the wool over their eyes,” Penza said.
But the momentum for change is building – in Rhode Island and around the country.
Last week, the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association unveiled a list of 20 promises they are making to Rhode Island residents, which included acknowledging the realities of police brutality, and a commitment to working with the General Assembly to update the officers’ bill of rights.
Walker, the professor from Nebraska, said the Floyd case -- along with several other incidents that resulted in the death of unarmed Black people at the hands of police -- has touched a nerve with Americans, leading to widespread protests and calls for reform in police departments across the country.
While politicians have historically sided with police unions, he said “the events of the last month have significantly changed the political dynamic.”
“The opportunity is here for major league police reforms,” Walker said.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.