PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Target 12 review of public records shows there have been 25 Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights cases in the state over the last five years that cost slightly more than $1.5 million in legal fees and officer pay while suspended.
The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights – or LEOBOR – hearings can be triggered for any discipline a police chief hands down on an officer that is greater than a two-day suspension.
Critics say the process is expensive and cumbersome, while proponents say it protects the vast majority of good officers from heavy-handed police chiefs.
In May 2009, Twin River Casino security cameras captured Lincoln Police Officer Edward Krawetz violently kicking a seated, handcuffed woman to the head. The officer was charged and eventually convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
But because Krawetz appealed the court’s decision – claiming the act was done in self defense – by law that froze the town’s ability to move the forward with a LEOBOR case, meaning they could not immediately remove the officer from the force.
Krawetz was suspended with pay for roughly six months, totaling $23,053 in salary (not including the time he used for sick leave). The department was then able to suspend him without pay in December when he was charged with the felony.
Three years later – after Krawetz exhausted his appeals – the town was able to move forward with the Bill of Rights process. Records provided by the town show it took lawyers 36 days to prepare for the hearing, costing $35,796 in legal fees and the price to hire a stenographer for the hearing.
On the first day of the hearing, Krawetz decided to resign.
In another case, Providence Police spent $96,781 in legal fees and pay while suspended to terminate an officer who “engaged in sexual misconduct” while on duty, according to records.
Officer Katchig Kasanjian – a 15-year veteran of the force – responded to a domestic violence call on May 8, 2012, and had sexual contact with a woman who was either a victim or suspect, according to records.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the department wanted to part with Kasanjian immediately, but instead had to place him on paid leave while the six-month LEOBOR process worked its way out. In all he was paid $56,781 during that period.
“It was just despicable behavior by a police officer,” Pare said. “[LEOBOR] takes too long, it’s too expensive and it takes the authority from the police chief away and leaves it with someone that is outside that department.”
Here’s how a Bill of Rights hearing works:
By law, a three-member panel is assembled 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.
The law requires an officer to notify the department if they intend to trigger a Bill of Rights hearing within five days of receiving any notice of discipline. The police chief – or highest ranking member of the force at the time – then has five days to inform the officer who their pick is for the LEOBOR panel.
Any questioning of the officer then must “be conducted at a reasonable hour, preferably at a time when the law enforcement officer is on duty,” according to the law.
Attorney Vincent Ragosta, who has handled the vast majority of LEOBOR cases for towns in recent years, said the cost to terminate an officer is “significantly more” than in other public sector jobs because the process is rigid and cumbersome.
“It has taken it to a height that makes it extremely expensive and procedurally complex,” said Ragosta. “These deadlines should be more flexible because the public interest of ridding itself of an unfit police officer is very significant.”
Ragosta said the police department has just ten days up to the hearing date to provide the officer with a list of witnesses and all evidence that is going to be presented at the hearing. He said in other judicial hearings there is more flexibility in bringing forward key pieces of evidence.
Ragosta points to a case in Pawtucket where Officer Nicholas Laprade was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge “disorderly conduct by indecent exposure” after exposing himself to two women while driving. He was off duty at the time.
The city charged Laprade with 18 counts of misconduct including allegations outside the exposure charge, “including sleeping while on duty,” according to a court document.
Ragosta said an internal affairs officer – new to the process – mistakenly submitted the evidence they planned to use after the ten-day deadline, which prohibited the city from putting their full case forward.
“Upon a two-to-one vote, the committee decided that due to the procedural error … the city was unable to present any witnesses or submit any documentary evidence to the committee, and was therefore unable to sustain its burden of proving the allegations,” according to a court document.
Meaning Laprade could keep his job.
“The city was precluded from terminating this officer’s employment because of a very rigid and inflexible standard in LEOBOR,” said Ragosta.
Four years later, with the case going all the way to the State Supreme Court, the city ultimately prevailed in their request for a new hearing. After that decision Laprade resigned, but not before the city spent $91,738 in legal fees and $176,306 in salary while suspended.
Law Protects Officers
Rhode Island is one of 14 states that have a bill of rights process for police officers written into state law.
Attorney Joseph Rodio – who has represented some of the state’s largest police unions – said LEOBOR was designed in the 1970s when police chiefs were using disciplinary action to target officers they didn’t like.
“Of course there are some cases where LEOBOR protected maybe a police officer who did something wrong,” Rodio said. “But that law protected many more police officer who would have been the victim of political shenanigans, or political vendettas.”
He said chiefs sometimes get around the two-day suspension rule – which triggers the bill of rights process – by suspending an officer one day at a time multiple times.
“If you want to look at LEOBOR and condemn it because of an incident in Providence or incident somewhere else because it protected someone who was clearly in the wrong, that’s a bad example,” Rodio said. “You can find bad examples in anything.”
The City of Cranston is preparing for a high-profile LEOBOR hearing in the wake of the parking ticket scandal.
Cranston Police Captain Stephen Antonucci was charged with seven violations by the city. He’s accused of ordering a city ward to be blanketed with parking tickets for political retaliation after two city council members voted against a union contract.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung has called for Antonucci’s termination, triggering LEOBOR.