It took the public killing of George Floyd – nine minutes and 29 seconds of chilling video – for people’s attitude toward the police to change forever. It took a jury about 10 hours to convict Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, of murder and manslaughter charges.
So how long is it going to take Rhode Island lawmakers to approve even modest police reforms, the kind that might allow a police chief to suspend a troubled cop for longer than two days?
It has now been more than 300 days since state Representative Anastasia Williams introduced a bill to overhaul the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), the law that dictates how departments around the state deal with police officer misconduct.
But instead of action, we’re getting ambivalence from our elected officials.
At a press conference a few hours before the Chauvin verdict on Tuesday, Governor Dan McKee endorsed the concept of police accountability, but he wasn’t quite prepared to dive into any details. Shortly after the verdict, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi issued a statement to let everyone know that reforming LEOBOR “is a priority of many members of the House,” although he stopped short of offering his own opinion. And Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s office said he didn’t issue a statement at all.
Well, at least no one is going to accuse them of moving too quickly.
Here’s the thing: Tweaking a few provisions in the existing law wouldn’t prevent a tragedy like Floyd’s murder, nor would it have stopped Providence sergeant Joseph Hanley III from assaulting a handcuffed man last April. But it might give police chiefs a little more flexibility to impose discipline within the ranks.
People who truly understand what’s at stake - like Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements - support such changes to LEOBOR.
“I believe in due process, I don’t believe in a tyrant police chief,” Pare told me this week. “But the LEOBOR is broken. It takes too much time to go through the process in holding police officers accountable.”
In the last year, we’ve also seen a Senate task force publish a fairly comprehensive study that recommended a series of meaningful, but not exactly earth shattering, changes to the officers’ bill of rights.
Things like allowing police chiefs to suspend officers for up to 14 days before they can request a LEOBOR hearing, rather than the current slap on the wrist of two days. Or expanding the three-member disciplinary panel that hears LEOBOR cases to five members that could include two individuals without a background in law enforcement.
By the way, the current makeup of that disciplinary panel has been called “one of the worst impediments to accountability in any of the statutory bills of rights in the country” by Samuel Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability.
While a handful of bills proposing changes to LEOBOR have been proposed in the House and the Senate this year – including one from freshman state Representative Jose Batista would allow for 30-day suspensions – members of House or Senate leadership have yet to take a stand on the issue.
That’s a problem.
It’s reasonable that they didn’t want to jump the gun last year. Even Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos acknowledged Tuesday that her position on LEOBOR has evolved. She once supported repealing the law entirely, but now she’s backing more modest changes, like the ones recommended by the Senate task force.
But with clear examples of the necessity of police reform playing out across the country over the past year, with urgent calls for justice and protest after protest on the State House steps, this waiting game can’t go on.
Change is needed. Leaders need to lead now, before the end of the current legislative session, so that reforming LEOBOR does not become a political football next year, when everyone has their names on the ballot again.
You’ve watched the video, probably countless times. You’ve looked within our own police ranks. You’ve heard the protesters. Inaction is not an option right now, not in Minnesota, not even in Rhode Island.