“…LEOBoR is being invoked very infrequently… The sentiment of the overwhelming majority of chiefs I had spoken to was that what was going on with discipline with officers… was working.”
During the second meeting of the Rhode Island State Senate‘s “Special Legislative Task Force to Review and Provide Recommendations on Policies Pertaining to the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights” (LEOBoR Task Force) it became more clear that what the task force is looking to accomplish is at best a soft reform of LEOBoR and not a comprehensive overhaul or, as was suggested by task force member Jose Batista at the last meeting, immediate repeal of the entirety of LEOBoR.
LEOBoR is a series of special rights and privileges accorded to law enforcement officers “intended to protect them form investigation and prosecution arising from conduct during official performance of their duties, and provides them with privileges based on due process additional to those normally provided to other citizens.”
“When we first started our goal was to bring a proper balance to the system as it relates to protecting our citizens and not protecting wrong doers,” said Senator Harold Metts (Democrat, District 6, Providence) during his opening comments. Metts authored the legislation creating the task force and sits as the chair. This committee, continued Metts, came out of “a desire to bring people together and find common ground so that we can have a good, balanced, fair and just system.”
You can watch the meeting here, in its entirety:
You can watch and read about the first meeting of the task force here:
Sidney Wordell, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and former chief of the Little Compton Police Department, explained the results of a survey taken with current police chiefs across Rhode island. Though the questions asked of the police chiefs was made available, the actual responses were not, and Wordell supplied only his summary of the results.
Wordell began with a disclaimer. “I’m not an economist that’s good at analyzing data or giving you theories. But I’m here to share with you the results of our survey as it’s been presented to me…”
“As you are all aware, the LEOBoR here in Rhode Island has been touted as many things, some good and some bad, depending on your perspective,” said Wordell. “I’ll tell you that most of those opinions are based on third hand knowledge, and the primary reason for that is LEOBoR procedure is used very infrequently in Rhode Island.”
Later in the hearing, however, Wordell mentioned that a few police chiefs noted in their responses that LEOBoR does incur costs and lengthen the time it takes to impose discipline, which impacts their discipline decisions. This prompted Michael Évora, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission, to ask if it’s a “fair statement that it’s likely that in some instances chiefs are deciding to mete out two days or less just to avoid the cost and the time of the [LEOBoR] process?”
Under LEOBoR, a police chief can issue a two day suspension, but if a greater suspension is given, the officer has the right to engage LEOBoR and contest the decision.
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Wordell admitted that a few chiefs did say that the possibility of engaging with LEOBoR for infractions that might incur a suspension beyond two days, did factor in their discipline decisions. But Wordell said this was never about terminating an officer’s employment, just about suspensions of greater than two days.
Task Force member Colonel James Manni, chief of the Rhode Island State Police, answered that every decision he’s made as “has gone back to the cost/benefit – two days versus anything larger. I’m not talking major suspensions. I’m talking two days, five days… In my experience on the State Police, every single time some type of discipline, especially a suspension, it’s a review of the LEOBoR – what I can do and can’t.”
23 police chiefs fully participated in answering the survey. A 24th respondent is the chief of a district not covered by LEOBoR. Of those who responded, LEOBoR was invoked 22 times over the last ten years. Over that period, there were 262 total suspensions, 152 of those suspensions were for two days or less. 108 were for three or more days. 90% of the time, when LEOBor could have been invoked, the discipline was accepted by the officer.
“What these numbers say to me,” said Wordell, “is that LEOBoR is being invoked very infrequently… The sentiment of the overwhelming majority of chiefs I had spoken to was that what was going on with discipline with officers… was working.”
Discipline, said Wordell, is meant to correct a police officer’s behavior, but not intended to “publicly shame.” Had a police officer been involved in an infraction worthy of being terminated, the police chief would move to terminate that officer, not discipline them. All departments utilize progressive discipline, noted Wordell. There is no statewide matrix or system used to determine the nature of that discipline.
Other highlights from Wordell’s description of the responses to the survey:
- The vast majority of police chiefs want to increase the number of days an officer can be suspended without invoking LEOBoR to 10 days, rather than the current two days.
- Progressive discipline judges infractions by the severity of the infraction, the intent of the officer, previous discipline, years of service, and the likelihood of corrective behavior.
- Police chiefs agree that transparency is key to keeping the public’s trust when disciplining officers. “The vast majority of all chiefs all suggested that discipline centered on criminal behavior should be made public,” said Wordell. When should it be released? “Upon conviction of the officer.” In determining making the accusation public, ‘the balance must me made for the public’s right to know and the rights of the officer, just like any other accused citizen.”
- The vast majority of discipline originates within the department, for violating administrative policies, not based on complaints from the public. Some internal administrative issues do become public, such as an example, given by Wordell, where a police officer was discovered sleeping in his car. Under LEOBoR, the police chief was prohibited from making public statements about this behavior.
- There is no training provided for the three officers that sit on the LEOBoR hearings. Eight of the chiefs answering the survey had been members of such hearing boards. They noted that one of their biggest obstacles was how to handle the cases procedurally. Since both the police department and the individual officer have lawyers present, these LEOBoR hearing boards take their cues from the lawyers in the room as to procedure. “I do want to interject, though, that police officers judging other officers may look weighted towards an officer, but every officer I know of that has sat on one of those hearing boards takes their responsibility to heart,” said Wordell. The survey suggested an increase from three to five participants on the hearing board, with the majority having law enforcement backgrounds. One or two members of the public with knowledge of police procedures and criminal law should be added to the hearing boards. Task force member Anthony Capezza Jr, the state director and lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, suggested that a third lawyer be made available to the board.
- A member of the public with no expertise in law enforcement procedures sitting on a LEOBoR board would be unfair to the accused officer, noted Wordell, who suggested that perhaps a permanent or semi-permanent LEOBoR board could be formed to conduct such hearings. As it stands, each convening of a LEOBoR board can have three members who have never sat on such a board before. This might have the advantage of building some institutional knowledge, which would allow the board to consider past cases and discipline in crafting an appropriate response. This might be similar to the parole board or to the disability board, said Wordell.
Does LEOBoR hamper a police chiefs ability to discipline?
“The vast majority [of police chiefs surveyeed] said, ‘No,'” said Wordell. But, as mentioned, a few police chiefs noted that LEOBoR does incur costs and lengthen the time it takes to impose discipline, which impacts their decisions as to discipline. No police chiefs felt that it impacted their decision to seek termination of an officer. In cases where termination of an officer was initiated by a police chief, many officers retired or resigned.
This eliminated the need for a hearing, but also eliminated the ability to record findings of unacceptable behavior,” said Wordell. This is relevant because police officers are certified by the POST (Rhode Island Police Officers Commission on Standards and Training) which currently has no procedure to de-certify officers.
This means that a police officer subject to discipline in one agency in Rhode Island who chooses to leave before that discipline is instituted may be able to prevent his infractions from being given to another agency looking to hire them. “By leaving that have not been disciplined, they have not gone before a hearing board, they have not been found guilty of those charges,” said Wordell. “And that becomes an issue.”
As a result, Wordell reported that the POST has voted to consider any officer to leave employment that their certification becomes inactive. This is a first step towards figuring out how to decertify an officer. This would allow any law enforcement agencies seeking to hire that officer to be referred to the POST so as to re-activate their certification.
Under questioning, Wordell noted that there are two forms of discipline, administrative and criminal. When criminal charges are brought against an officer, administrative discipline is put on hold. When an officer faces felony charges, it’s clear that the department is seeking termination, but when an officer faces misdemeanor charges, it’s not so clear cut, said Wordell.
Officers are given a psychological examination before they “enter the police academy, but never after that, “said Wordell. “We know the trauma they see… has an effect on them – but more importantly or as important – how does that affect them with their relationship to the public? Commission member Anthony Capezza Jr, the state director and lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, noted that there are circumstances under which a police chief may order a psychological exam for a police officer.