Police misconduct bill stalls in RI House and Senate

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Efforts to reform the R.I. Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) have stalled, with just days left in the legislative session, House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said Tuesday.

“It appears we can’t reach consensus in the House on reforming LEOBOR before we finish our legislative business this week,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “I pledge to continue to work hard on this important issue, and if we have a fall session, I hope we can have a resolution then.”

Despite the stalemate in the House, the Senate on Tuesday posted a committee vote for Thursday to take up legislation on the topic. But a compromise version of the bill was not posted, and on Wednesday the vote was cancelled.

“Over the course of many months, the Senate has engaged with all stakeholders in good faith efforts to responsibly reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we have been unable to reach consensus at this time. We will continue to work with the sponsors over the summer in an effort to reach consensus on this important issue.”

Legislative leaders have been hoping to potentially wrap up the session Thursday night.

Reforming the law that dictates how police officers can be punished for misconduct was popular among lawmakers this year, but they introduced a slew of different proposals ranging from minor amendments to full repeal.

The existing law allows officers a hearing before a three-member of panel of active or retired police officers before discipline beyond two days of unpaid suspension can be imposed. Police chiefs have said the rules hamper their ability to fire or punish bad cops, especially since the LEOBOR process is paused if the officer’s alleged actions result in criminal proceedings.

Providence Police Sgt. Joseph Hanley, for example, remains employed by the Providence Police Department but suspended as he appeals an assault conviction stemming from improper use of force on the job — despite the fact that city leaders want to fire him. Police Chief Hugh Clements and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré support reforming LEOBOR, while Mayor Jorge Elorza wants a full repeal.

Police unions, while open to some small changes, have fought to keep the law, arguing it provides due process for officers that are expected to make split-second decisions in high-stress situations.

The task force convened by the Senate recommended in December 2020 to extend the maximum suspension from two days to 14, to add more neutral parties to the hearing panel, and to partially remove a gag order on police chiefs, allowing them to make “limited public statements” about investigations of officers they’re moving to terminate.

The sticking points in negotiations appear to deal with the length of suspension and the makeup of the hearing panel, rather than whether or not the law should be repealed.

But some say incremental changes don’t go far enough. Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, introduced a bill that would fully repeal LEOBOR.

“We don’t need baby steps towards justice, we need JUSTICE,” she tweeted Wednesday.

Rep. Anastasia Williams, the lead sponsor of the House legislation, did not answer a phone call seeking comment.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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