PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The three top candidates to become Providence’s next police chief took questions for an hour Wednesday night, telling a packed crowd about their views on police misconduct, building trust with the community and combating gun violence in the city.
The finalists — acting Chief Oscar Perez, Maj. David Lapatin and Maj. Kevin Lanni — also weighed in on the recent high-profile actions of police in Memphis, where five officers have been charged in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.
The questions, asked by moderators Cedric Huntley and Mario Bueno at the Providence Career and Technical Academy, came from a recent community survey and from audience members who submitted questions during the event.
The most-asked question from the audience was whether the candidates would support reforming or repealing the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, also known as LEOBOR, which protects officers accused of wrongdoing.
Perez said chiefs should be able to discipline officers for longer than a two-day suspension, the current minimum in the law before a disciplinary panel under LEOBOR is triggered. And he said he also would remove a requirement that chiefs cannot speak publicly about ongoing investigations into police misconduct.
“Especially when it’s clear as day,” Perez said. “A chief should be able to say something. … It looks like we’re hiding something.”
Lapatin agreed, suggesting “at least 10 days” of suspension before LEOBOR is triggered. As the current commander of the investigative division, he pointed to the fact that he frequently speaks to journalists about incidents the department is investigating. He said there should be the same transparency for investigations into officers.
“Any time there’s a major crime … I’m on television, I’m on the news telling you what happened,” Lapatin said. “There’s no reason why the neighborhood has to worry, or wonder or hear secondhand what happened.”
Lapatin also said he wants to add two civilians to the panel that considers discipline for officers, comparing it to civilians serving on juries. Currently, the three-member panel is made up of current and former law enforcement officers.
Lanni also said he would reform the law, saying “our values have changed” since the law passed. “I feel it’s time for reform.”
None of the chief candidates supported repealing the law altogether.
While any reforms to the police-misconduct law must come from the General Assembly, opinions from police chiefs and unions are highly likely to be taken into account.
Asked about police brutality cases across the country, Lapatin said more training and supervision is needed, pledging to increase the number of hours Providence officers are trained in police de-escalation, handling mental-health issues and community policing.
He referenced Memphis specifically, saying the leadership should have identified problems within the department before the fatal beating happened.
“The chief came out and said they had a problem with their culture and accountability,” Lapatin said. “If I ever come out and say that, mayor, fire me the next day.”
Perez also said supervisors need to be held accountable, arguing a department is “only as strong as its weakest supervisor.”
“It’s an embarrassment for those of us who wear the uniform so proudly to see what happened in Memphis,” Perez said.
He said as chief, he would hold officers accountable for their duty to intervene in incidents of misconduct.
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Lanni said he would “hold leadership accountable” for hiring, training, supervision, discipline and culture, expressing support for the Constitutional Accountability Act proposed by U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman David Cicilline.
Lanni, who said he was a lifelong resident of Providence, currently commands the new community operations and engagement bureau. He’s the only finalist for chief who currently lives in the city.
Perez, who grew up in Providence after immigrating from Colombia, was recently promoted to deputy chief of the department. He has previously led the community relations and internal affairs bureaus, and has been filling in as acting chief since Col. Hugh Clements left for a job with the U.S. Department of Justice. He would be the first person of color to be chief, if selected.
Lapatin is the longest-serving candidate out of the three, with 39 years on the force, currently leading the investigative division. He lives in Cranston, but grew up in Providence and said he has been a member of Providence synagogues on the East Side. He is also a licensed attorney.
All three candidates went to Providence public schools.
Mayor Brett Smiley, who selected the three finalists out of 11 applicants and organized the public forum, will ultimately select the next police chief.
“I can say unequivocally that we have three exceptional professionals here to introduce to you tonight,” Smiley said in remarks before the event. He said it was a testament to Clements “that we have such a strong command staff where there are high-quality people of integrity … that any one of them could have been the next chief of police.”
Some protestors demonstrated at the event, holding signs calling for defunding the police and an end to police brutality.
One interrupted when Lapatin proposed a new program in schools to recruit students as young as 8th grade to become future police officers, which would include mentoring them and paying for them to go to college before entering the police academy.
“Students don’t want cops in schools,” the audience member shouted. “They’re asking for counselors, not cops.”
Lapatin, who oversees the six school resource officers currently stationed in Providence schools, said school leaders have asked for more officers than the department could provide.
“We need them there,” Lapatin said. “The only thing the parents should worry about is, ‘I hope they pass their math test,’ not ‘I hope they don’t get stabbed today.’ That’s enough of that.”
Lanni expressed support for more after-school activities and partnerships with police and other community groups, pointing to existing sports leagues where officers mentor young people.
“I think that is going to continue to drive the trajectory of young gun violence down in our city,” Lanni said. “They can be productive and stay away from being the offender, or worse, the victim of gun violence, and both outcomes are awful.”
He named “keeping children safe” as his No. 1 priority, followed by recruitment.
All of the candidates said it was key for officers to be part of the community they serve, expressing support for increased officers on foot and bicycles.
“We need to make sure our officers have the latitude to integrate themselves in the community,” Perez said. “We value officers doing proactive work jumping fences, chasing people with guns. … We also have to value the fact that they mentored a child, or they went to a school.”
Lapatin said introducing more face-to-face interaction between police officers and the community was key, which would require more manpower in the department, which currently stands at 414 officers.
Asked afterwards for a specific number, Lapatin said the department should have 475 officers. Lanni similarly said around 470 officers are needed, while Perez declined to give a specific number.
All three commanders told 12 News they would stay in their current jobs if they are not selected as chief. (All three are eligible to retire with maximum pensions, having served longer than the 20 years required.)
Asked about gun violence in the city, Lanni said the key is partnering with other agencies and leveraging technology, pointing to equipment that allows shell casings to be traced within hours of an investigating starting.
Perez said the key is using data strategically to target individuals and areas where gun violence occurs, while also avoiding “over-policing” certain neighborhoods.
“The last thing we want is to lose a life in our city,” he said.
Lapatin said there was a big increase in guns making their way onto the street during the pandemic, and officers removed more than 270 from the street last year.
And while shootings are currently down in the city, he didn’t celebrate the statistics.
“I’m not going to sit here with my back arched and be proud that we only had nine murders, no way,” Lapatin said. “We have to make it to the point where one murder is outrageous as a society. Carrying a gun is outrageous as a society.”
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.