Rhode Island lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are committed to reforming the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a law that was formulated in the mid-1970s to give officers due process in disciplinary measures.
The General Assembly is considering several major changes based on recommendations from a task force commissioned in 2020 by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio after nationwide calls for police reform.
It’s not clear which changes will be decided upon, but they may include expanding the method and extent of officer discipline, as well as allowing information about a case to be disclosed to the public by police chiefs. One bill even proposes completely abolishing the law.
Democrats in the Senate have filed a bill — supported by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza — to repeal the bill of rights entirely, while the two other bills submitted in the House would make structural changes to the law and rename it the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act.”
Under the current law, officers can only be suspended for two days without pay while waiting for a disciplinary hearing. A three-member bill of rights panel is then convened to hear the case, and it can take months of deliberation to decide on the outcome. The department has to pay the officer (including health benefits) throughout the process. If charged with a felony, the chief can suspend an officer without pay as the case is turned over to the judicial system.
One of the proposed changes would allow a police chief to suspend an officer for five days without a hearing.
Another consideration under the proposed “Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act,” authored by Representative Anastasia Williams, would allow a chief to suspend an officer for 15 days without pay for minor violations.
The bill would also expand the bill of rights panel from a three-member committee of an officer’s peers to include three civilian members. These would include the chair of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, the dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law and the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice (or a designee of these three).
Arguably the most significant change introduced in Williams’ bill would be to make police officers equivalent to other municipal employees in terms of disciplinary action, thus allowing a bill of rights hearing but only after punishment. This would essentially make the hearing part of an appeals process.
“Police chiefs will no longer be handcuffed and impeded from imposing swift and appropriate disciplinary sanctions, as contrasted to the current [bill of rights] system, which neuters them to merely recommending discipline and embarking on a lengthy legal journey to purge violent, untruthful, abusive or otherwise errant or deviant officers,” attorney Vincent Ragosta told the Providence Journal.
Attorney Joseph F. Penza Jr., who has represented police officers throughout his career, argued that changing the bill of rights was unnecessary, and that the law has not prevented chiefs from disciplining officers.
“I’ve never heard a police chief say, ‘I can’t punish someone because of the bill of rights,’” Penza said. “I’ve heard them say, ‘I’m not happy with it because I can only give a two-day suspension. I’m not happy that I can’t talk about it.’ But no one ever says, ‘I can’t punish someone because of the bill of rights.’”
The attorney also argued that by adding civilians to a panel, the process would become even longer. He also questioned who would pay the members of the committee.
“I think the process is going to be drawn out even more,” Penza said. “Second — who is going to pay these civilians? These hearings, some of the more serious ones, can go on for five or six dates.”
Penza believes that the changes being considered by lawmakers would make it impossible for police officers to get a fair trial: “I am unaware in any labor setting where the accused employee in a disciplinary action has to prove his/her innocence by clear and convincing evidence, as opposed to the employer having to prove its case by a fair preponderance of the evidence. No officer will ever get a fair hearing if this legislation passes.”
Other recommendations suggested by the task force would allow police chiefs to publicly discuss cases of officer misconduct.
A summary of the task force was given by Ruggerio: “They voted overwhelmingly against the full repeal of [the bill of rights], instead recommending three important reforms: removal of the gag clause so that police chiefs can speak openly about police misconduct investigations; the addition of two neutral arbiters to the hearing review panel; and an expansion of summary discipline from two days to 14 days, which amounts to almost a month’s suspension. The Senate remains committed to passing those three key reforms.”