“There seems to be a conflict between civilian [constitutional] rights … and what LEOBoR does, and to the extent that there is a conflict, it shouldn’t be the state law [LEOBoR] that’s ruling the day – our focus and our emphasis should be on the civilian rights of civilians [under the constitution.]”
The third meeting of the Rhode Island State Senate’s task force dedicated to researching and suggesting reforms to the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) consisted of testimony from various advocacy groups and was not testimony from the community, in the sense that members of the public were not allowed to address the task force. Instead, the task force heard perspectives from the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, and the Rhode Island ACLU.
For coverage of the first two meetings, see:
- Reform or Repeal? The Senate LEOBoR Task Force holds first meeting
- Second meeting of LEOBoR Task Force suggests soft reboot, not big changes
Senator Harold Metts (Democrat, District 6, Providence), who chairs the task force, described this as testimony from the community.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza presented testimony on behalf of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns. Breaking down the testimony, the League –
- supports extending a chief’s ability to suspend an officer from two to ten days before LEOBoR kicks in. Currently, if a police chief wants to suspend an officer for more than two days, that officer can invoke LEOBoR protections and demand a hearing tribunal to contest the suspension. “This would be a game changer,” said Mayor Elorza.
- supports more transparency in the process, giving city and town officials the right to speak publicly about the incident under investigation throughout the process, “especially when there are possible criminal acts that are involved,” said the Mayor, adding, “It really erodes trust if we can’t be transparent” because of LEOBoR.
- believes discipline records should be retained and kept on file. Sometimes these records are sealed or expunged. “Potentially this allows officers to reset the clock on progressive discipline or it allows them to be hired by another agency with a clean slate,” noted Mayor Elorza.
- wants improvements to the LEOBoR process, specifically, the way members of the review board are chosen. “Going through the LEOBoR process is cumbersome, lengthy and expensive,” said Mayor Elorza. This influences many of the decisions made by the police chiefs. Discipline is negotiated to avoid invoking the LEOBoR process, undermining the integrity of and public trust in the system.
There is bias and prejudice training funding for new officers, but not for continuous education said Joe Reddish, who chairs the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias. The commission “has the foundation already in place to build that type of a program, so that we support our [police] chiefs in providing ongoing education for our officers.”
“As you’re rewriting LEOBoR – making it better – that we need to make sure that we give our law enforcement officers across the board the tools to be successful in improving relationships within the community,” said Reddish.
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Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU was asked to testify on transparency and accountability issues. In talking about transparency, you have to talk about how LEOBoR interacts with the Access to Public Records Act (APRA), said Brown.
LEOBoR prevents public officials from making statements about ongoing disciplinary hearings, but this is often interpreted to mean that documents pertaining to ongoing disciplinary hearings are exempt from being accessed by the public through APRA requests, said Brown, adding, “We would encourage this task force to look at clarifying the limitations of what that restriction covers.”
Across the country, municipalities are opening up police records, but “here in Rhode Island, the lack of transparency is overwhelming, from our perspective,” said Brown. “We’re battling being able to get misconduct records even when identifiable information about officers has been redacted, never mind trying to get the information with the names of officers [included].”
Another issue has to do with public access to police body cam footage. “We would encourage the task force to look at that issue… and set some legislative standards on the release of body camera footage to the public.”
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha defended his office’s view that redacted police records of misconduct should be released only after being individually reviewed. Neronha said that in reviewing these case, his office is not acting as public advocates, but as judges – as the body that enforces the APRA.
Task force member Reverend Howard Jenkins pushed back on Neronha, saying, “It’s the optics from the community view, and the optics don’t look so well sometimes.”
Task force member Jose Batista was recently elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives (District 12, Providence) and chairs the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) the only civilian police review agency in Rhode Island. Batista noted that suggested reforms so far have been presented as roughly pro-management, that is, shifting power to the police chiefs, or pro-union, protecting police officers from reforms that will too radically alter LEOBoR. What’s missing, suggested Batista, is the civilian perspective. He suggested policy issues to consider:
- Reforming the APRA to allow the release of police records.
- Altering the way that LEOBoR investigations are conducted.
In a larger sense, Batista sees LEOBoR as getting in the way of enforcing constitutional rights. “There seems to be a conflict between civilian [constitutional] rights … and what LEOBoR does, and to the extent that there is a conflict, it shouldn’t be the state law [LEOBoR] that’s ruling the day – our focus and our emphasis should be on the civilian rights of civilians [under the constitution.]”
Michael Évora, executive director of the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission, noted that only 19 states have LEOBoR. “I think it would be really valuable for this task force to get information on the disciplinary process in those states that don’t have a LEOBoR,” said Évora.
Anthony Capezza Jr, the state director and lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said that departments that don’t have LEOBoR decide all these issues in court. Capezza claimed it was a lot more expensive for municipalities to go to court than to use the procedures outlined in LEOBoR, though it should be noted that one of the issues brought up by the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns was that LEOBoR is expensive.
That was the last of the meeting. For completeness, here’s the beginning and the end of the hearing, wand a bit of Senator Metts that mostly consisted of administrative housekeeping.