Rhode Island lawmakers are considering the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which dictates how police departments investigate and discipline officers. 

Eliminating the law emerged as a legislative priority among advocates who demanded changes to policing during protests last summer. And advocates for police reform who testified during a Monday hearing said the bill stands in the way of accountability, hampering police chiefs and public safety leaders from adequately disciplining officers for misconduct, and shielding departments from public scrutiny. 

On Monday afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from dozens of people on a slate of legislation, including three bills directly related to the law, known as LEOBoR. 

Two bills would amend the law, by changing the composition of hearing committees and setting new rules for what police departments can say publicly about discipline. Both reforms were included in the recommendations of a Senate task force convened last summer to consider changes to the law. 

But the bill that received the most public support during testimony was S-773, sponsored by Senator Tiara Mack (D-Providence), which would repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights altogether. Speaking in support of the bill, Mack invoked the 2020 protests. 

“How are we, legislators, going to take the lessons from last summer?” Mack said. “We give so many protections to a body of workers who, quite frankly have really strong unions, and don’t need this additional layer of protections, that prevent the community from holding them accountable.”

According to the Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Cynthia Coyne (D-Barrington), between 75 and 100 people had signed up to provide public testimony, the majority to speak about repealing LEOBoR. 

Over the course of several hours, residents from Providence and around the state, spoke mostly in support of the measure. Many raised the issues of police brutality that sparked the current reconsideration of policing, including the recent conviction of Providence police Sgt. Joseph Hanley of misdemeanor assault while arresting Rishod Gore. 

The repeal of LEOBoR has also received support from Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who testified Monday that the law adds an unnecessary extra layer of oversight for police chiefs and makes it more difficult to address misconduct; something other municipal department heads do not face. Elorza called the law, which dates to the 1970s, outdated.

“Admittedly, there were fewer employee protections back then,” Elorza said. “That has changed. Now there's the contract, state and federal labor laws, the grievance process. There are a lot of protections for employees that didn't exist back then.”

A number of political organizers and activists involved in recent demonstrations for racial justice and police accountability also spoke in support of repealing the law.

Tony Capezza of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers spoke against the effort to repeal LEOBoR.

“I didn't hear anything in the testimony...where there's been any incident that they can actually point to where the bill of rights hindered a police chief from disciplining his officers,” Capezza said.

Steven Brown, executive director of The American Civil Liberties Union Rhode Island, testified that if repeal is politically impossible, then the law should at least be amended. Brown added that no bill up for consideration Monday dealt with a specific transparency issue.

“Right now, as a result of the number of Attorney General opinions that have been issued in the past four or five years, the public does not have a right to obtain automatically even redacted information about final investigations of police misconduct,” Brown said. 

“We therefore strongly urge that any LEOBoR reform that's adopted include language that closes this loophole."