After recent violent arrests by Rhode Island police, state legislators and several activist groups are increasing efforts to push for the abolishment of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
LEOBoR was created to protect law enforcement officers from prosecution while performing their duties, but many believe that today its provisions shield officers from being disciplined for their unjust actions through legal processes. Rhode Island is one of only fourteen states in the country, and the only state in New England, to still have LEOBoR.
On Aug. 20, a rally was held outside the Providence Public Safety Complex in support of Senate Bill 773. Aiming to repeal LEOBoR in its entirety, the bill was introduced April 2021 and sponsored by Rhode Island State Senators Tiara Mack ’16 (Democrat, D-6), Jonathan Acosta (Democrat, D-16) and Samuel Bell (Democrat, D-5). Mack was in attendance at the rally to advocate for her bill, especially in light of recent body camera footage that revealed the recent violent arrests of three juveniles.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza backed the bill following its introduction. In response to Elorza’s support, the Providence Fraternal Order of Police Lodge wrote that they were ‘“disappointed and disheartened.”
Although various LEOBoR repeal and reform bills were discussed in the past legislative session, no consensus was reached. But despite the stall, those advocating for repeal will continue to push legislation in the next session.
“One of the things (the bill) would do is remove some of the protections against officers that prevent them from testifying in non-governmental structures … like the public,” Mack said. She added that the bill would ensure that officers don’t have unfair access to information about their complaints before the investigation and would lead to more authentic and transparent interrogation events.
After Maryland historically overturned their LEOBoR in April 2021, efforts to repeal LEOBoR in Rhode Island grew even stronger, with several activist organizations voicing their support for Senate Bill 773.
Harrison Tuttle, executive director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island Political Action Commitee, was also in attendance at the Aug. 20 rally. He strongly supports the efforts for repeal and believes everyone else should, too.
“It’s a bill that completely gets rid of unnecessary due process for police officers,” Tuttle said. LEOBoR also limits the efforts of police chiefs trying to hold officers accountable for misconduct, according to Tuttle.
“If George Floyd was murdered in Providence or anywhere in Rhode Island, the most the police chief could hold that officer accountable is two days suspension with pay opposed to an immediate firing,” Tuttle said. Officers accused of misconduct and protected by LEOBoR are also allowed to pick one of the three panel members who oversee their trial.
LEOBoR was made to function in a different policing atmosphere than what now exists. “50 years ago, you had weak police unions and you had chiefs that pretty much punished officers for frivolous things, so there was a need to step in to protect the officers,” President of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Jim Vincent said. “Now this is 2021. You have different kinds of professional chiefs now that wouldn’t dare do some of the things that were done 50 years ago … plus police unions now are a lot stronger than they were then,” Vincent said.
Repeal support for the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights heightened following the rise in national conversations around police brutality last summer. “Rhode Island during that same time had two or three incidents of police brutality, one with Jamal Gonsalves, who was riding his motorbike downtown and was struck by a police officer … (and) another instance with a young Black man who was helping a friend (start her car) and was assaulted by police officers for being out late during the pandemic,” Mack said.
Critics of LEOBoR believe that the bill contributes to an unwelcoming environment for people of color and minority groups. “Through Black and brown experiences alone I can attest to that,” Tuttle said. “There has always been a sense that the police could get away with everything, and that they always had the system on their side.”
While several legislators and activist groups continue to push for repeal through legislation, protests and discourse, others believe that LEOBoR should be reformed and not abolished. Reform bills introduced in the Senate this session recommended that the maximum suspension be increased from two to 14 days, the number of parties on the hearing panel be increased from three to five and the “gag order” on police chiefs be partially removed, allowing them to make limited public statements. However, the bills stalled in the House and Senate, and no consensus was reached by the end of the session.
For Mack, these reforms are insufficient to hold accused officers accountable. “Increasing the number of officers on the panel that serves them from three to five fundamentally does not change the conflict of interest. If you are allowed to pick the people who are allowed to sit on a panel for the investigation of your misconduct case, having five people who are your friends versus three people doesn’t change the outcome … and inherent bias.”
Mack also critiqued reforms increasing suspension time, stating that they do not promote accountability and provide pay for officers while under investigation for misconduct, which could go on for months. “These are government employees who are paid through our taxes. If we can’t hold them accountable to making sure our communities are safe in a realistic way, then they’re not using our dollars wisely,” she said.
Repeal supporters hope that with time, their efforts will steer legislative attitudes to change from reform to repeal. “It’s almost hard to get rid of something that you have in place that makes it easier to protect a group of people, and in this case that group of people are the rank and file police officers,” Vincent said.
Activism efforts led by Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC, NAACP and other groups continue to grow. “The push for LEOBoR really came at the tail end of the General Assembly … we continue to gain support and testimony. We received over 75 people who testified at the Judiciary hearing alone,” Tuttle said. “The base support isn’t just in Providence, it’s all across the state.”
While activism increases awareness, individual legislators need to vote to turn their efforts into legislation, according to Vincent. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Mack and other LEOBoR repeal supporters remain hopeful about the future of proposed Bill 773 in the Senate and House. “The interesting thing about the climate this year was the way repeal bills were introduced … it was a tactic, in my opinion, from Senate leadership and House leadership to make the conversation about LEOBoR repeal or legal reform that much murkier ... the tactics of introducing reform bills with repeal bills is to dilute the conversation and divert people’s attention multiple ways,” Mack said. Her goal is to introduce the bill again this year early on in session, with aligned House and Senate sponsors.