Senate LEOBoR Task Force votes on final recommendations

“…no one has managed to convince me why there is a need for a Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights in Rhode Island when when 19 out of 50 states have some version of this, which means 31 states do not. There hasn’t been any evidence presented to this task force to suggest that things are awry in those 31 states that do not have a LEOBoR.”

Rhode Island News: Senate LEOBoR Task Force votes on final recommendations

December 10, 2020, 8:25 am

By Steve Ahlquist

The second to last meeting of the State Senate Task Force on the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBoR) discussed the draft report and task force members voted on various recommendations that optimally would form the basis of legislation in the General Assembly. The task force passed on the two most extreme options – leaving LEOBoR unchanged or repealing LEOBoR outright. Instead, the task force approved a few small changes to LEOBoR, changes that were for the most part opposed by task force member Anthony Capaeeza Jr, who serves as the state director and lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (IBPO).

The task force was convened and chaired by Senator Harold Metts (Democrat, District 6, Providence).

I’ll present each of the recommendations in the rather odd order in which the task force took them.

1. Extending the summary discipline period beyond two days

Under LEOBoR, a police chief can suspend a police officer for an infraction for up to two days before the police officer can dispute the punishment and challenge it under LEOBoR. Because of this, many police chiefs feel that they have to moderate their discipline to only two days, even if the infraction deserves more time, so as to not risk the onerous process of a LEOBoR hearing.

The Rhode Island Police Chief Association and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns both recommended extending the period of summary discipline to ten days. The IBPO is okay with summary discipline being extended up to five days, while House Bill 8036, introduced by Representative Anastasia Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence), calls for up to 30 days.

Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch immediately supported the idea of a 30 day period. Senator Gordon Rogers (Republican, District 21, Coventry, Foster, Scituate, West Greenwich) was partial to ten days, which Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements Jr agreed with. Anthony Capezza Jr thought ten days was excessive. Michael Évora, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Human Rights Commission, agreed with Jim Vincent on the 30 days.

The task force first voted on a thirty day suspension. That vote failed on a vote of 5-5. Colonel James Manni of the Rhode Island State Police, Marcela Betancur from the Latino Policy Institute and Reverend Howard Jenkins were absent. Senator Cynthia Coyne (Democrat, District 32, Barrington, Senator Rogers, Attorney General Peter Neronha, Chief Clements and Anthony Capezza Jr voted against. Senator Metts, Michael Évora, Jim Vincent, Elise Swearengine (taking the place of ousted PERA executive Director Jose Batista) and Reverend Chontelle Washington voted in favor.

The task force then voted on a 14 day extension, as suggested by Jim Vincent. That motion carried on a vote of 6-4, since Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha voted in favor this time.

2. Changing and/or expanding the composition of the hearing panel

Under LEOBoR, a hearing panel, that is the judges who will decide the officers fate when a disciplinary action is contested is made up of three law enforcement officers. One chosen by the police chief imposing the discipline, one chosen by the officer, and one “neutral” panel member.

The Police Chief Association recommended expanding the panel to five members, with a majority of members having a background in law enforcement. This would technically allow two civilian judges on the LEOBoR panel. The League of Cities and Towns recommended expanding the panel to five members, two include three neutral arbiters. These two suggestions are not mutually exclusive.

Jim Vincent immediately moved the second option. Capezza opposed this idea, favoring keeping the panel as is, and providing training to officers who serve as neutrals on such panels. Another part of the recommendation of the League of Cities and Towns is that the three neutrals be a standing committee, properly trained to hear LEOBoR cases. Also, of the three neutrals, at least two have to have a background in law enforcement and labor law.

Metts, Coyne, Rogers, Neronha, Berry, Clements, Vincent, Swearengine and Washington voted in favor. Capezza voted against. Évora abstained, since the issue of civilian involvement in the panel was not clear enough. (Rhode Island State Police Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Berry joined the call as proxy for Colonel Manni.)

3. Amending LEOBoR’s prohibition on public statements

Under LEOBoR, police chiefs and political leaders are prohibited from talking about the discipline officers may or may not receive. This silence, mandated by the labor protections of LEOBoR is often , interpreted by the public as no action of consequence being taken against officers.

The Police Chiefs Association and the League of Cities and Towns both called for greater transparency and discretion when an officer is under investigation. The IBPO also supported granting police chiefs greater flexibility when discussing pending disciplinary actions and charges. House Bill 8036 has a “balancing framework” that roughly reads that if the recommended discipline is less than termination, the law enforcement agency shall make no public statement until after the decision is rendered by the LEOBoR hearing committee. If recommended discipline is termination, the law enforcement agency may make a limited public statement indicating that the officer’s termination has been sought and the departmental (not criminal) charges brought against the officer after the charges have been brought. If the accused officer makes a statement about the charges against them the law enforcement agency may respond with public statements of their own.

Metts, Coyne, Rogers, Neronha, Berry, Clements, Vincent, Évora, Swearengine and Washington voted in favor. Capezza voted against.

4. Repealing LEOBoR in its entirety

Curiously, the task force took up this suggestion, after having discussed and recommended three revisions to LEOBoR, pretty much making this moot.

“We’ve been meeting since July of this year,” said Michael Évora, “and we’ve had a lot of thoughtful presentations and a lot of thoughtful commentary, but no one has managed to convince me why there is a need for a Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights in Rhode Island when when 19 out of 50 states have some version of this, which means 31 states do not. There hasn’t been any evidence presented to this task force to suggest that things are awry in those 31 states that do not have a LEOBoR. For me, I’m not sure I see why law enforcement officers should be treated any differently than any other municipal or state employee when it comes to due process rights. They are guaranteed by the constitution.

“There is no firefighter’s bill of rights,” said Évora. “There’s no city clerk’s bill of rights. I have not been convinced that there is even a need for this, which is not to say that I don’t believe that law enforcement officers are entitled to due process – they absolutely are. I just don’t see a need to have it codified separately from that which is guaranteed to every other municipal or state employee.”

Capezza agreed with Évora that police officers shouldn’t be treated differently, “But they are treated differently,” he said. Civilians have the right to not answer questions that may incriminate them. Police officers, said Capezza, do not have that right. “They are mandated to answer questions during the investigation, and if they refuse to answer them, then they would face further charges.”

Capezza then said that many years ago police officers could be suspended if the chief didn’t like them. “There’s no other profession where this can happen. In private industry that doesn’t happen,” said Capezza.

Senator Rogers pushed back on this idea, making the obvious point that many professions have oversight, and many employees face firing and loss of license for infractions. Vincent noted that he gets calls every day from people who have lost their job simply because they are a woman or a person of color, refuting Capezza.

Chief Clements called his profession “unique” and that the goal of LEOBoR was to balance due process rights with management rights and transparency. “I think it’s done that.” AG Neronha said that overhauling LEOBoR is a bigger job than a task force meeting for a couple of hours every month can accomplish. He said he sees the goal of the task force as tweaking the statute to provide more public transparency and to give chiefs more power to discipline. “That’s the most I think we can accomplish in this format,” said Neronha.

Senator Metts said that his goal in creating the task force was to “bring balance to the system because I felt it was out of kilter… I think we made good progress, to make this system better.”

Metts, Coyne, Rogers, Neronha, Berry, Clements and Capezza voted against repealing LEOBoR in its entirety. Évora, Vincent, Swearengine, and Washington voted to repeal LEOBoR.

5. Maintaining the current LEOBoR statutory framework, that is, doing nothing to reform LEOBoR.

Another recommendation that should have been taken up near the beginning of the task force meeting, instead of at the very end.

Metts, Coyne, Rogers, Neronha, Barry, Clements, Évora, Vincent, Capezza and Swearengine voted against. Washington had dropped off the call.

Suggestions made to the task force not directly related to LEOBoR included:

  • Mandating the collection of data regarding officer discipline and LEOBoR proceedings.
  • Continued funding for the collection of traffic stop data by the Department of Transportation.
  • Require and support funding for continuous professional development and prejudice and bias training for law enforcement agencies and officers.
  • Amending the Access to Public Records Act (APRA) to allow for increased disclosure related to law enforcement officer’s personnel records.
  • Not sealing or expunging disciplinary records, for offending officers.
  • Create a statewide database relating to officer misconduct.

These recommendations will be included in the final report, but no action was taken on them by the task force.

There will be one more meeting of the task force, the final meeting, next week.

Here’s the video:

RI Senate Task Force Votes on Final Recommendations to the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights

Here’s complete coverage of the earlier meetings: