PROVIDENCE – In the weeks and months following the shooting death of an off-duty Black Providence police officer by two members of his own force in 2000, politicians and community leaders found themselves asking a question that still resonates today as Americans process the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
Would Cornel Young Jr. still be alive if he were white?
Young’s tragic death – he was trying to break up a fight outside of a restaurant and was killed because the officers didn’t recognize that he was one of their own – sparked a provocative debate about police reform and racial injustice across Rhode Island, and it led to changes to officer recruitment strategies and firearms policy.
But one proposed reform, recommended at the time by a commission that was appointed by then-governor Lincoln Almond, was largely ignored: Change the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), the law that dictates virtually every facet of police discipline in Rhode Island.
Even though the law did not play a direct role in Young’s death, the commission took a broad view of the situation, seeing a need to try to strengthen the relationship between police and the community.
The commission said there was no area in its review “engendering the most controversy, misunderstanding, and entrenchment” than the officer’s bill of rights. Some believed it protected bad cops. Others said it was designed to protect the good ones. In the end, nothing changed.
Now, 20 years after Young’s death, the killings of Floyd, Taylor, and Brooks at the hands of police officers has prompted state and local governments around the country to revisit different aspects of public safety policy, and Rhode Island lawmakers have zeroed in the officers’ bill of rights. But those who recall the aftermath of Young’s death in Rhode Island say they’re skeptical change will come.
“If you didn’t listen 20 years ago, you’re probably not going to listen today,” said Lloyd Monroe, a retired federal prosecutor who was the research coordinator for the Rhode Island Select Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations after Young’s death.
The commissioners, including politicians, policymakers, and members of law enforcement – Hugh Clements, the current chief of the Providence Police Department, was a member – issued a 139-page report in May 2001 stating that the Young incident “highlighted numerous areas of concern in race relations and the relationship between the police and the community served, not only for Providence, also for communities large and small throughout the state.”
Monroe, who now lives in Texas, chuckled during a telephone interview when he recalled the commission’s discussion on the officers’ bill of rights. He said it was “one of the more complex issues because, quite clearly, many of the law enforcement people who were on the commission were responding to their constituencies.”
Indeed, the report noted that the law was meant to be “a protection from arbitrariness in discipline” for officers who catch the ire of mayors or police chiefs, a common point that union members still make in favor of the law.
But the commission didn’t hold back on its criticism of the law.
“It is also true that in its most recent form, the LEOBOR in Rhode Island remains one of the most stringent in the country today from the standpoint of the community seeking redress,” the report stated.
A provision in the law that allows for a three-member panel comprised of active or retired police officers to determine the discipline that a chief can impose for officers accused of misconduct – aside from two unpaid days of suspension -- is considered “one of the worst impediments to accountability” in the country, according to Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
The 2000 commission recommended that a legislative subcommittee be created to study the officers’ bill of rights, but it also suggested that the maximum number of days that a police chief can suspend a troubled cop be raised from two days to five days, and that the disciplinary panel add two civilians, increasing its size from three to five members.
The commission also suggested that there be “wide advertising to achieve a racially, ethnically, and gender-diverse pool of civilians willing to serve as adjudicators.”
Monroe said the commission was careful to not call for the law to be repealed in its entirety, in part because there was little appetite within law enforcement for even slight changes.
“Even at the time, it didn’t strike me that any substantive change would come about anytime soon,” Monroe said. “And I was right.”
The commission’s recommendations went far beyond preventing a future tragedy like Young’s death, laying out a set of proposals that were aimed to strengthen the relationship between police and the community.
Young, who was 29 at the time, was in plainclothes trying to break up a fight at Fidas Restaurant on Valley Street when he was killed in what police said was a case of mistaken identity. Two officers shot Young when he didn’t drop his gun.
A grand jury later cleared officers Carlos A. Saraiva and Michael Solitro III of any wrongdoing, and a jury found the city not liable for Young’s death. Aldrin Diaz, who was involved in the fight that Young was trying to break up, was charged with murder, but the charge was dropped. He was later sentenced to 22 years in prison on a combination of charges stemming from the incident.
Young’s death did lead to other changes in policy, including the elimination of a requirement that police officers carry a gun while they are off duty. Departments were also required to improve training for off-duty officers to identify themselves to other police officers
The recent nationwide outcry – including large protests in Rhode Island – after the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and Brooks led state Representative Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, to target the officers’ bill of rights for change.
Williams has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, that would give police chiefs the ability to suspend officers for up to 30 days without pay before triggering a bill of rights hearing, and expand the disciplinary panel to five members.
While the officers’ bill of rights isn’t likely to change a cop’s actions in the heat of the moment, Williams and other advocates say it does prevent officers from immediately facing harsh discipline when they are accused of wrongdoing. Had the Minneapolis officer accused of killing Floyd worked in Rhode Island, for example, he could not immediately be terminated from his job under state law.
Supporters of the bill of rights argue that police officers deserve due process, and that management – from mayors to police chiefs – is often compelled to take action before learning all of the facts.
But Williams said changes to the law are “desperately needed” to allow the public to regain trust in the police.
“The public’s outcry is much louder and stronger, and rightfully so,” Williams said. “There will be change this time around, whether the powers that be are interested, ready, willing, or not.”
In Providence, there is an active case that offers insight into how the current officers’ bill of rights works.
Joseph Hanley, a police sergeant, was charged with simple assault in May after he allegedly struck a handcuffed man several times. The police department has so far refused to release body camera footage, but Mayor Jorge Elorza announced last week that the city would attempt to fire Hanley.
“We have recommended termination of this officer, however this case must go through the LEOBOR process, which will take six months or longer to complete,” Elorza said in a statement. “As this process continues, we are focused on bringing justice to the victim, holding this officer accountable for his actions, and above all, rebuilding trust within our community.”
Rhode Island lawmakers are scheduled to return to Smith Hill this week, but the future of Williams’ proposal remains unclear. Williams said she wants to see the bill approved this summer, but she acknowledged that the Senate has proposed a study commission similar to the one that was proposed 20 years ago.
Monroe, the attorney who helped prepare the Rhode Island Select Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations’ report after Young’s death, said it wouldn’t be difficult to predict the future of the bill of rights law after a study.
“A commission is there for the purpose of killing it,” Monroe said.