PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – On March 18, 2021, a Providence district court judge handed down the verdict: Sgt. Joseph Hanley was guilty of assaulting a young man named Rishod Gore, whom he had arrested on Tell Street in April 2020.
The body camera video, played repeatedly at trial, showed Hanley kicking and punching Gore while he lay on the ground in handcuffs, as well as calling him various names including “animal” and “savage.”
Gore testified that he feared for his life as Hanley kneeled on his neck, while Hanley claimed he just gave him a “noogie” with his knee.
Judge Brian Goldman called Hanley’s testimony an “utter fabrication,” then handed down a guilty verdict.
The police chief and mayor at the time made it clear they wanted Hanley off the force, and the new administration of Mayor Brett Smiley agrees.
But two years after that conviction, Hanley remains a Providence police sergeant – though suspended – and is inching closer towards the 20 years on the force required to collect a full pension from the city.
The reason Hanley gets a second trial is because of an obscure court rule in Rhode Island that allows defendants convicted in misdemeanor District Court bench trials to get a second trial on appeal.
Moments after being convicted by Judge Goldman in the lower court, Hanley’s lawyer moved to appeal the case to Superior Court, where Hanley has the right to a trial by jury.
The trial will be “de novo” – starting anew, rather than a review of the testimony from the lower court.
Hanley rejected a plea deal from prosecutors last spring — he has consistently argued the force he used was justified — and both sides say they are ready for trial.
Yet the trial has not yet been scheduled.
“COVID backed us up on trials,” Attorney General Peter Neronha said in an interview with Target 12, adding that there are about 300 trials waiting in the queue. “This is a misdemeanor … a serious one, I don’t want to minimize it — but we have murder cases that are waiting to go. We have significant child molestation cases that are waiting to go.”
Court spokesperson Lexi Kriss said while there’s no date for Hanley’s trial, misdemeanor cases transferred to Superior Court in 2021 would generally be heard in the fall of 2023.
In the meantime, Hanley cannot be fired under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, despite the overwhelming desire of city leaders to get him off the force.
That state law — frequently called LEOBOR — allows officers to have a disciplinary hearing before a panel of three current or former officers, who will make the ultimate decision on Hanley’s punishment.
The law delays that hearing until after the accused officer’s criminal case is over, including the appeal. So even after Hanley’s conviction, his termination process did not start.
He’ll reach 20 years on the force on Nov. 10.
And while Hanley hasn’t been paid his $86,435 salary since October 30, 2020, he still receives medical and dental benefits from the city worth more than $5,000 per year.
“Every taxpayer here in Providence, and throughout the state, is paying for officers who are under investigation, who are sometimes convicted of crimes already, to be on the force and have their benefits paid for,” said Harrison Tuttle, the president of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC.
LEOBOR also requires police departments to pay officers for the first six months of their suspensions.
Tuttle said Hanley’s case, along with other pending police officer terminations, are exactly why he thinks LEOBOR needs to change. His organization would prefer a full repeal, but he also supports incremental reforms.
“It continues to be a barrier for trust in the community,” Tuttle said.
Hanley is one of three Providence officers facing termination whose LEOBOR cases are pending. Jeann Lugo, who was acquitted in November of assaulting Jennifer Rourke at an abortion rally, had his LEOBOR hearing earlier this month and is awaiting the panel’s decision.
Stephen Gencarella, who has been charged with slamming a man’s head into pavement last July, has also been recommended for termination. His criminal case is pending trial.
In Pawtucket, Officer Dan Dolan was acquitted in January after shooting a teenager while off duty. Because of LEOBOR, Pawtucket had to pay him $123,000 in back pay following the acquittal. City leaders will seek his termination at his LEOBOR hearing.
“It handcuffs local municipalities and police chiefs to be able to hold their own officers accountable,” Tuttle said.
Police chiefs can only suspend officers for two days before the LEOBOR hearing process kicks in, which chiefs have long said prevents them from holding officers accountable.
The chiefs also cannot talk publicly about their investigations into officer misconduct, which is not the same standard for other defendants.
“When you’re not transparent with the community you serve, there’s a perception of unfairness, there’s a perception of lying, there’s a perception of something being covered up,” said Col. Oscar Perez, the Providence police chief, in a recent interview. “We should be able to speak.”
Reforms proposed on Smith Hill
Efforts to reform LEOBOR gained steam following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020, with police leaders pointing out they would not have been able to fire those officers if the same events had happened in Rhode Island.
But efforts to pass legislation have stalled during the past two General Assembly sessions.
Those who are pushing for change say reforms are likely to pass this year, though a full repeal is unlikely.
State Rep. Ray Hull, a Providence police sergeant himself, is the lead sponsor of one of the reform bills. Hull, the deputy House speaker, is proposing to extend the number of suspension days to 14, along with removing the “gag rule” on chiefs and changing the makeup of the LEOBOR panel.
Hull’s bill as written would keep the fundamental concept of LEOBOR in place, including the requirement that officers cannot be fired until after their criminal cases are over. But he told Target 12 he is still working with other lawmakers, including Providence Rep. Jose Batista, to tweak the legislation.
“We’re not done yet,” Hull said. “We’re working through this process now.”
Batista declined to be interviewed for this report, but provided a copy of his own legislation, being introduced Thursday, which would keep the LEOBOR panel but reverse the order of operations.
Under Batista’s bill, chiefs could punish officers as they saw fit — including firing them — and the officers could then appeal the decision for review by the LEOBOR panel.
Tuttle said Batista’s proposal is the “best reform bill,” though he reiterated that his organization would prefer to repeal LEOBOR altogether.
Hull said he doesn’t favor repeal, which would leave officers without any due process.
“It’s just so difficult to go from something to nothing,” Hull said. “But I understand that the change has to happen.”
A spokesperson for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi said he supports reforming the law, and the House will work to reach “consensus with all the parties involved” after a hearing is held on the two bills. A hearing date has not yet been set.
Any legislation is likely to face headwinds from police unions, who support the due process rights in LEOBOR.
Michael Imondi, the president of the Providence Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, said he does not support the 14 days of suspension allowed in the Hull bill, nor does he support changing the makeup of the panel.
He said he would support a tiered system, where officers who are charged criminally could face stricter punishments than those who are only facing policy violations.
“Fourteen days is quite a jump from two,” Imondi said.
He said he is OK with chiefs being able to talk about investigations more than they are now, though he still wants there to be restrictions.
Mayor Smiley, the city’s acting public safety commissioner, said he intends to seek Hanley’s termination once the criminal case is over.
And while he supports reforms, Smiley said the Hull bill does not go far enough to give cities and towns the right to hold officers accountable.
“We need to reform LEOBOR in order to address incidents like these in a timely, transparent manner and to prevent deteriorating of the community’s trust in our police force,” Smiley said in a statement.
“There are meaningful advancements in Rep. Hull’s bill to reform the structure of the LEOBOR board, but more needs to be done to empower the mayor and administration within police agencies to make employment decisions,” he added.
Steph Machado (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.