PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Community advocates who want to reform a four-decade-old law designed to protect police officers from heavy-handed punishment may find common ground with many police chiefs across Rhode Island.
The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, commonly referred to as LEOBOR, was passed in 1976 and triggers a hearing before a three-member panel if a police chief disciplines an officer for anything above a two-day suspension.
By law, the panel is made up of “active or retired law enforcement officers from within the state of Rhode Island, other than chiefs of police.” One pick is from the department, another is chosen by the officer in trouble, and a third is a neutral choice. Either both sides have to agree on the “neutral” selection or the presiding justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court makes the pick.
“If I go to court, can I pick a jury member? I don’t think so,” state Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, said during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “The person being accused is able to pick someone on that panel. I couldn’t go to court and do that.”
A bill proposed by Metts that passed on Thursday calls for the creation of a 13-member task force to examine the law and make recommendations.
“We’re going to come together, we’re going to look at what needs to be done, and we have to bring balance to the system,” Metts said.
The task force will be comprised of three senators, Attorney General Peter Neronha, a police chief, and representatives from the state police, the R.I. Human Rights Commission, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, and the Providence External Review Authority.
A separate bill in the House put forward by state Rep. Anastasia Williams and co-sponsored by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello would overhaul the law by increasing the amount of time an officer can be suspended without pay to 30 days before triggering the hearing process.
A 2014 Target 12 investigation found 25 LEOBOR cases cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million in legal fees and officer pay while on suspension over a five-year period. That figure does not include overtime to cover the cost of an officer who is on paid leave.
Police unions have defended the law as a shield against politically motivated punishment inside a police department.