PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence’s public safety commissioner is making another push to change the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), as interest in amending the state law grows following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota.
The state law, according to Commissioner Steven Paré, ties the hands of police chiefs so they cannot swiftly hold officers accountable for wrongdoing.
“If Mr. Floyd was killed here at the hands of a police officer, we would not be able to terminate immediately like you saw out in Minnesota,” Pare said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s troubling.”
Paré wrote an op-ed in Wednesday’s Providence Journal in support of a House bill that would rename the statute the Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act, sponsored by Providence Rep. Anastasia Williams and House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, both Democrats.
“Under the current process, it takes months to adjudicate, becomes a trial-like procedure and takes away the power from the police chief; but, more egregiously, it protects police officers who should clearly not be serving,” Paré wrote.
Watch the full WPRI 12 interview with Paré in the video above.
The proposal would change the hearing process, which under the current LEOBOR includes a panel of three current or retired law enforcement officers to hear a case involving the termination of an officer or an unpaid suspension longer than two days. One member is selected by the accused officer, one by the chief of the department, and the third is a neutral person selected by both parties.
The bill would change that to a five-person panel — two officers and three civilians — and would allow police chiefs to fire or suspend officers prior to the hearing, with the hearing acting as an appeals process.
Under that proposal, the panel would defer to the chief on an officer’s punishment unless it meets the standard of “arbitrary and capricious” in which case it can be reversed.
Paré called it “drastically” better than the current LEOBOR hearing.
“This is about giving authority to the police chief and when there’s behavior that isn’t conducive to the department,” Paré said. “The chief should have the ability to hold those officers responsible.”
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The department currently has one officer on the payroll facing a criminal charge: Sgt. Joseph Hanley was charged with misdemeanor assault in May and is suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
“LEOBOR requires the city to pay Sgt. Hanley his salary and benefits,” Paré said. “Until that criminal case is adjudicated, we can’t move forward with a hearing.”
Michael Imondi, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, said Wednesday he does not believe LEOBOR needs a full overhaul, though some changes might be in order.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there,” Imondi said. “It’s being painted and framed in a negative light.”
He noted that officers will often resign or accept a punishment recommended by the chief in order to avoid going to a LEOBOR hearing, knowing that the punishment could end up even steeper after facing the panel.
Paré’s criticism of LEOBOR is one of the reasons the union voted no confidence in him last week, a symbolic gesture that was originally sparked by how the union believes Paré handled an incident between a Providence firefighter and two police officers.
“That’s their prerogative. I understand that. I respect their decision,” Paré said. “But we need some cultural change in policing. And if we don’t lead this as a profession, it’s going to be led for us.”
“The decision about a vote of no confidence is a political decision that they made,” he added. “That’s their choice. I’m doing what I think is best for public safety in this city and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Community groups have been calling for defunding or abolishing the police in the wake of nationwide protests about systemic racism in policing. The advocates say money spent on policing would be better used for housing, mental health or education.
Top city leaders leaders have indicated they are willing to consider reallocating resources within the department, and one councilman has proposed creating a new unit for social workers or mental health professionals to respond to certain 911 calls instead of police officers.
Paré said he could support such a unit, though “the devil is in the details,” and noted that any reduction of the number of police officers would require shifting the demand for response off of police.
“We’ve burdened our police in this country way too much,” Paré said. “911 is used and abused, and we end up going and getting in the middle of situations where we’re not the right entity or profession to be dealing with those things.”
More than 90% of the police department’s budget is salaries and benefits. The new police academy to recruit 50 new Providence officers early next year is potentially on the chopping block as city lawmakers continue weighing the budget for the fiscal year that started Wednesday.
“If you want to cut the police department by 50%, that’s people,” he said.