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Neronha seeks more tools to investigate allegations of police misconduct

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Attorney General Peter Neronha is rolling out a series of initiatives that would expand his ability to investigate law enforcement and is calling on police departments to mandate body-worn cameras.

During a news conference Monday, Neronha said he supported the use of cameras worn by police officers by all departments and the R.I. State Police.

“From where I sit, I want to know what happened,” Neronha said. “The more we have on video the better off we are.”

In a survey of police departments last year by Target 12, most police chiefs said the biggest hurdle to body cams was the cost to obtain and maintain them. Neronha said he hopes his office can help departments obtain funding and possible offer some “seed money.” He said he would be announcing more details in the coming weeks.

Neronha is set to testify Monday afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bill introduced in February that would expand the law that governs lawsuits and investigations into alleged civil rights violations.

If passed, the proposal would allow his office to conduct what he called “pattern-and-practice” investigations on police departments – and other agencies – that appear to have shown “repeated federal or state constitutional or civil rights violations.”

“I think it’s a critical tool because there may be instances where individual acts of misconduct by police don’t rise to the level of crime yet there’s something about the way that police department trains, supervises, investigates internal acts of misconduct that doesn’t lead to a remedy,” Neronha said. “I think this office can help in that regard.”

The bill would also expand the criteria for who would be covered by the law. Right now it allows someone to pursue a civil action for harassment or intimidation based only on “race, religion, or national origin.”

The bill broadens the criteria to include “ancestry, color, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or expression, or disability.” 

The current law also only allows action when there is physical force, violence, or property damage. Neronha wants civil action to be an option when someone is threatened.

Neronha said he would also be issuing an expanded use-of-force protocol “within days” that would require police departments to forward misdemeanor assault cases against a police officer to his office for review. Generally, only felony cases, police-involved shootings and deaths of suspects in custody are elevated to the attorney general’s office. (Neronha said Providence already sends misdemeanor cases against officers to state prosecutors for review).

He said it’s critical to flag and track what was once considered a minor violation before it becomes something more serious.

“That assault today may lead to a more serious act of violence later,” he said.

Neronha said his office would conduct an independent review of the facts and determine if charges should be filed.

“I think policing in Rhode Island by and large is very, very good,” Neronha said. “That said, no police department is immune from police officer misconduct. Typically by a few, and we need to have the tools to be able to fix problems as they arise.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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