Williams, Quezada blame leadership for impasse on police misconduct bill

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Two state lawmakers who want to reform the R.I. Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights expressed frustration Wednesday afternoon that efforts to change the law have stalled.

State Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Ana Quezada, both Providence Democrats, held a news conference criticizing House and Senate leaders for not getting legislation through, after the topic was high on the agenda for months.

Quezada said she supports police officers, but also wants them to be held accountable for their actions.

“If we do something wrong, we have to pay the price,” she said.

The two lawmakers spoke out alongside members of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus after House and Senate leaders had both announced consensus could not be reached before the legislative session wraps up, which is supposed to happen Thursday night.

The two legislators, who each sponsored bills to reform LEOBOR, said House and Senate leaders made changes to the bills they could not support, ending the chances of getting legislation passed this session.

“When you give your word, your word is supposed to be your bond,” Williams said. “We probably won’t get anything come the fall, either.”

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi has said the issue may be taken up in the fall, when lawmakers also may consider marijuana legalization.

“We could not reach consensus in the House on reforming LEOBOR, but I pledge to continue to work hard on this important issue,” Shekarchi said in a statement Wednesday. “I have committed to work with the sponsor over the summer to come to an agreement on LEOBOR.”

Shekarchi also defended his commitments to issues important to the Black and Latino Caucus, pointing to nine bills that have passed this session, including a $15 minimum wage and barring discrimination by source of income for people seeking houses.

LEOBOR gives police officers in Rhode Island the opportunity for a disciplinary hearing before receiving any punishment longer than a two-day suspension. The hearing panel is made up of three active or retired law enforcement officers, two of which the accused officer has a say in selecting.

The law also bars police chiefs from speaking publicly about officer misconduct cases, and delays the hearing process when a criminal charge is involved.

Momentum had been growing to change the police misconduct law following the death of George Floyd last year and subsequent civil rights protests. But a slew of different bills were introduced, ranging from incremental changes to a full repeal of the law.

After Shekarchi said on Tuesday that consensus couldn’t be reached on a final bill, the Senate initially planned to move forward with a committee vote on a LEOBOR revision Thursday. But Senate leaders cancelled the meeting on Wednesday after that chamber also hit an impasse.

Williams and Quezada had proposed to extend the maximum suspension length to 30 days, and increase the hearing panel to five people with various neutral parties included. Williams said while they had conceded to change the suspension length to 14 days before triggering a hearing, there were disagreements on which neutral parties to select for a reworked hearing panel.

“What they did that was so disingenuous,” Williams claimed of House leaders. “They took what I agreed to and created their own bill, and merged the agreement into their own bill and wanted me to run with that.”

Spokespeople for both chambers said no bill would have gone forward without the support of Williams and Quezada, respectively.

“As with many bills, there were multiple versions drafted for potential amendments to the LEOBOR reform legislation,” House spokesperson Larry Berman said. “However, at all times, the drafts being worked on were intended for use by Rep. Williams in her legislation, but she did not agree to the proposed amendments.”

One tangible example of LEOBOR at work is the case Providence Police Sgt. Joseph Hanley, who 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.

A 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.

But some say incremental changes don’t go far enough. State 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.

Mack said Wednesday she would likely vote against any bill that reforms LEOBOR but does not repeal it. She noted the fact that Rhode Island plans to equip all police departments with body cameras, which she said could result in more evidence of police misconduct.

“We’re spending $15 million on body cams and we still may not be able to remove people in positions of law enforcement who are shown on camera to have done something wrong,” Mack said.

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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