PROVIDENCE — After a summer in which the city saw protest after protest calling for social justice and police reform, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha announced Thursday that he has established a special civil rights team to focus on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes and police misconduct.
“When there is a hint of bias or bigotry, they can bring the case to us,” Neronha said.
The new team includes criminal and civil attorneys working together to analyze complaints from people or organizations, jointly investigate them, and determine whether to pursue criminal or civil action.
While they’ve been consulting for several months on various hate crime complaints, Neronha said he’s making this unit an official part of the office, and asking local law enforcement to establish their own liaisons to refer possible cases to them.
“We need to be sharing [information] within hours, not weeks,” Neronha said.
Ultimately, Neronha said, he hopes this civil rights unit will remain after his administration is over. “Formalizing this sends a message that we are taking this seriously,” he said.
Sid Wordell, retired Little Compton police chief and executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said a vast majority of police departments already have officers designated as civil rights liaisons. That practice started as departments began working with the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, he said.
Police don’t get that many reports of hate crimes, Wordell said, “so you want to have somebody familiar with it, to make sure the agencies are staying up with [training].”
Rhode Island does not have a hate crimes law, but under the Hate Crimes Sentencing Act, prosecutors can notify the judge that they intend to ask for a more severe sentence based on what they believe is a defendant’s motivation in committing a crime. The sentence enhancement adds another 30 days and cannot be suspended or dismissed, Neronha said.
That includes misdemeanor cases, which state prosecutors wouldn’t typically handle. The attorney general’s office is already seeking hate crime sentence enhancements in two such cases from this summer — the first time the office has used the measure in five years.
One involved a woman who allegedly shouted racial epithets at a Black family at the Coast Guard House in Narragansett in June. The disorderly conduct case against Christine Longo, 34, of South Kingstown, is pending at District Court.
The second case involved a man accused of assaulting and using racial slurs against his Middle Eastern neighbor in an argument over a property marker in Barrington in August. Richard Gordon, 71, is currently on trial in District Court on misdemeanor charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct.
The civil rights team reviewed criminal cases against Cranston officer Andrew Leonard and Providence Sgt. Joseph Hanley, who are both charged with simple assault, but ultimately decided not to seek hate crimes enhancements. Neronha said they didn’t have evidence that either officer behaved differently because of race.
Leaders of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island had urged Neronha to prosecute Gordon’s case as a hate crime.
“I think it’s going to be helpful,” Gary Danztler, president of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island , said of the new civil rights unit. “We have to hold each agency accountable to that division. ... I think it’s so important that the local police departments charge these people with these hate crimes.”
The civil rights team will be led by Assistant Attorney General Daniel Guglielmo, an 18-year veteran, working with special assistant attorneys general Robert Johnson and Michael McCabe. They will focus on hate crimes, police misconduct, police excessive use of force, and anyone who uses force or threatens to use force to interfere with constitutional or legal rights.
They will review complaints with the office’s civil rights advocate Keith Hoffmann, who also serves on the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias and trains police departments and other organizations on how to investigate misconduct motivated by bias. Hoffmann will also handle other civil rights violations, such as failure to comply to anti-discrimination laws.
If the matter involves police misconduct, the team follows the Attorney General’s Use of Force Review Protocol, which reviews when police use excessive force, cause serious bodily injury, and use deadly force.
Civil rights advocates called the new unit a step in a positive direction.
“To the extent that establishment of this new team sends a message to police departments that police misconduct will not be tolerated and complaints of improper use of force by officers will be thoroughly investigated, it is a very good thing,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “We will be interested in seeing its impact in the months ahead.”
The civil rights team will also be involved with a training and education program in partnership with community organizations, including the Jewish Alliance, the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, and several police departments.
“The attorney general has been very supportive in our concerns about the rise in hate crimes, so this is a great first step,” said Stephanie Hague, the director of community relations at the Jewish Alliance.
She said they are glad that local police will be equipped to identify hate crimes, and thinks this will help with more reporting. “I think we have a lot of work to do,” Hague said, “but it’s moving in the right direction.”