Should police protections be changed?
Police chiefs, unions take issue with proposed Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights reforms
A bill to reform the protections spelled out in the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights would allow police chiefs to discipline officers more quickly. (Getty photo)
The state’s biggest police union and its police chiefs association are signaling their opposition to a bill seeking to change controversial police officer protections in Rhode Island.
On March 24, Providence Democrat Rep. José Batista filed a bill to reform the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). Adopted in Rhode Island in 1976, LEOBOR protects officers from being fired immediately or put on leave without pay when they are accused of misconduct.
A number of bills seeking to change this system were introduced in last year’s legislative session but never made it past committee.
Critics of LEOBOR argue it prevents justice from being served when officers are abusive. Proponents such as Michael Imondi, president of the Providence Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, say LEOBOR ensures officers get their due process.
“LEOBOR has always been and continues to be the legal means for a police officer to be guaranteed a fair investigation and hearing process when unjustified discipline is being imposed,” Imondi said. “This bill is saying we’re not allowed to have that.”
Under Batista’s bill, police chiefs would be allowed to enforce disciplinary action immediately after a ‘Loudermill’ hearing, a due process requirement for a government employee prior to removal or disciplinary action. Action would not be instituted against an accused officer if the misconduct happened more than three years ago, unless there was a criminal offense.
“Police departments should be better able to remove the bad actors from their ranks swiftly,” Batista, a former public defender who now has his own solo law practice in South Providence, said in a statement.
“Those officers are a threat to the public and harmful to their own department’s ability to serve.”
Currently, Batista said, disciplinary action doesn’t go into effect until after the LEOBOR panel holds its hearing and issues a decision — which can take months or years.
Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association (RIPCA), said he also feels that this legislation is not the way to approach disciplinary action.
Only when there are criminal charges, he said, is it appropriate for a chief to make that ultimate decision to suspend an officer without pay.
“The idea that the chief has the ability to do a termination without having a board to do that hearing — we’re just not ready to support that,” Wordell said. “It’s nice to have ultimate power, but even then, you hope there’s a full review.”
The idea that the chief has the ability to do a termination without having a board to do that hearing — we’re just not ready to support that.
– Sidney Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association
Batista’s bill also seeks to close a loophole displayed in the case of Daniel Dolan, a Pawtucket police officer who shot a teen driver while off-duty in West Greenwich in 2021. Dolan was acquitted of three felony counts of assault with a deadly weapon and discharge of a firearm in February.
Under LEOBOR, the city of Pawtucket had to pay Dolan $123,934 in back pay because of his acquittal. Under Batista’s bill, if an officer is acquitted of a crime but terminated by the municipality, they would not be awarded back pay.
Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien said this reform would greatly assist his “community’s ability to thrive.”
“One officer’s actions do not define a profession, however, what we allow, tolerate, and excuse casts a cloud over all,” Grebien said.
“These restrictions hold officers to a different standard of conduct than other city employees, who would be immediately terminated for such behavior.”
Imondi argues that such a change will inhibit recruitment and retention, which has been a big challenge for police departments in recent years. When he was hired by the Providence Police Department in 1995, Imondi recalls there being 4,000 applications for the police academy. These days, he said the number of applicants is around 900.
“And we had to extend the process another six months to get there,” he said. “That’s a drastic drop. We’re losing people faster than we’re replacing them.”
Batista, meanwhile, argues that just because an officer is acquitted of a crime does not mean they are entitled to be back on the force.
“As we have seen in numerous recent cases in Rhode Island, officer conduct can be so egregious as to warrant termination even if the officer is acquitted of a crime,” he said.
Agreement on tweaking hearings
The police chiefs’ association does support a provision in the bill that looks to expand the LEOBOR hearing panel from three to five members.
LEOBOR hearing panelists can be active or retired police officers — with one picked by the chief, one by the officer under investigation, and a third chosen by both or a presiding Superior Court judge.
Under Batista’s bill, the additional two members would be selected respectively by the Rhode Island Center for Justice and the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights.
Wordell said he supports the inclusion of civilian oversight.
“That should be able to give the public some confidence that there’s somebody there that’s participating,” he said.
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