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Police reform takes center stage at State House

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Police reform takes center stage at State House

Jan 23, 2024 | 8:28 pm ET
By Christopher Shea
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Police reform takes center stage at State House
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The Senate Judiciary Committee hears from law enforcement and the ACLU of Rhode Island on a bill introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio seeking reforms for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on Jan. 23, 2024. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — After General Assembly leaders pledged to make 2024 the year to change controversial police officer protections in Rhode Island, the Senate is wasting no time in getting proposed reforms to the floor.

Will 2024 be the year of LEOBOR reform and granny flats?

Less than half an hour after kicking off its first hearing of the year, the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday voted unanimously to advance a bill by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to reform the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) to a full vote Thursday.

The current law, adopted in 1976, protects officers from being fired immediately or put on leave without pay when they are accused of misconduct. Ruggerio’s proposal would increase the size of the panel that hears LEOBOR cases from three members to five. It would also increase the number of days a police chief can suspend an officer without pay before they can seek a LEOBOR hearing.

Such changes were approved by the Senate last June in a 35-2 vote.

“And I don’t expect anything different,” Ruggerio told Rhode Island Current after the Judiciary Committee’s approval.

Sen. Ana Quezada, a Providence Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, did not attend Tuesday’s hearing because she was feeling sick. Quezada was one of the two votes against the bill that passed through the upper chamber last June.

Ruggerio’s proposal never made it to the House last year.

Police reform takes center stage at State House
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, listens to testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill he introduced seeking reforms for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on Jan. 23, 2024. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Differing proposals

Just as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Ruggerio’s bill Tuesday afternoon, the House introduced its own proposal to reform LEOBOR. The bill is sponsored by Deputy Speaker Raymond Hull, a Providence Democrat, and contains a few noteworthy differences from the version in the Senate when it comes to who can serve on a hearing board and how long an officer can be suspended.

Hearing panel members under Ruggerio’s bill would include a retired judge appointed by the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the executive director of the Providence-based Nonviolence Institute, and three randomly-selected police officers.

Hull’s bill, meanwhile, would have the three officers chosen by the Police Officers Commission on Standards and Training from a certified pool. Instead of someone from the Nonviolence Institute, that seat would be filled by an attorney “selected in consultation with the Supreme Court’s committee on racial and ethnic fairness.”

House Spokesperson Larry Berman said in an email that Hull opted not to have someone from the Nonviolence Institute because the House typically does not name nonprofits in a law.

“What if a nonprofit agency, given legislative powers or duties, becomes defunct?” Berman said.

Hull’s bill would also create two categories of suspension. For minor infractions, officers would be suspended five days without pay before a LEOBOR hearing. More serious complaints, such as excessive force or felonies, would result in a 14-day suspension. The Senate’s bill would allow for up to 14 days across the board.

Ruggerio said he intends to work with the House to find common ground in order to get reform across the finish line.

“I am intent on passing LEOBOR legislation in this legislative session,” he said. “It’s not a contentious issue.”

Police reform takes center stage at State House
Left to right are Rhode Island ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown; John Donley, president of the statewide chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police; and John Rossi, the national service representative for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, testify at the Rhode Island State House during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio seeking reforms for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on Jan. 23, 2024. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Progressives call for repeal

Some of the House’s more progressive members, meanwhile, introduced a separate bill which would repeal LEOBOR. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which has yet to schedule a hearing. No companion bill was introduced in the Senate.

House Spokesperson Larry Berman said the repeal bill does not have the support of Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi.

“He is a strong advocate of LEOBOR reform, not repeal,” Berman said.

While Providence Rep. David Morales, one of the repeal bill’s eight co-sponsors, said he would like to see the police hearing process abolished, he is open to supporting reform.

“However, it’s important that discussions be had with advocates ahead of time,” Morales said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. “It would be premature to move any bill forward — legislative leaders have consulted heavily with law enforcement officials around the bill.”

“So it would be insulting if the community weren’t taken to the same regard.”

Police reform takes center stage at State House
Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC Director Harrison Tuttle testified about his opposition bill introduced by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio seeking reforms for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on Jan. 23, 2024. To Tuttle’s right is Providence-based artist and activist Michael Tillinghast. (Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

Advocates seek changes

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision to advance the bill came after social justice activists and police organizations urged the panel to hold the legislation for further review and amend it with their suggestions.

Judiciary Committee Chairperson Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, told reporters after the meeting that holding the bill would let the LEOBOR issue continue to languish.

“Sometimes you get to the point of analysis paralysis,” Euer said.

So what was some of that analysis? 

From the perspective of police representatives: The reforms go too far. 

As for advocates? They say Ruggerio’s bill doesn’t go far enough.

John Donley, president of the statewide chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the committee his organization is open to reform, but was against having someone from the Nonviolence Institute make decisions against police.

“Involving civilians in a panel, particularly those outside the legal profession, create some challenges,” Donley said. “Police have a body of knowledge of what other officers are held to.”

Social justice advocates voiced displeasure that the majority of the the LEOBOR hearing panel members would be police officers under Ruggerio’s bill

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, told Rhode Island Current Ruggerio’s legislation needs to ensure that officers on the panel never served in the same department as the accused.

“The bill just says that they can’t currently serve in the same department,” Brown said.

Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC Director Harrison Tuttle in his written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee said “allowing law enforcement officials to discipline their peers perpetuates a lack of public trust.”

“While some argue that police can be trusted with this responsibility, historical disappointments in accountability for victims of police brutality demonstrate otherwise,” Tuttle said.

He also called for people hurt by officers to be alerted when a LEOBOR hearing is concluded.

Tuttle said in an interview that he was disappointed that the changes to the makeup of the LEOBOR panel weren’t considered, but wasn’t shocked that the Judiciary Committee cruised through the hearing.

“This version passed last year,” he said.

Now, Black Lives Matter’s attention turns to the House, where Tuttle said he plans to have as many people as possible speak up in favor of the changes the organization is proposing.

“The most important thing in any bill that has to do with individuals who are being negatively impacted is that their voices are centered in any solution,” Tuttle said.