The Rhode Island Senate task force charged with reviewing the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights on Wednesday finalized recommended changes to the law, which include altering the composition of disciplinary hearing panels, authorizing police chiefs to comment on investigations, and increasing public access to police personnel records. 

“There was a balance during our deliberations whether to keep LEOBOR as is, to abolish it in its entirety, or to reform it. And the consensus reached was for reform,” said Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence), who led the task force. 

Under the state’s existing Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which has been criticized as being overly restrictive, police chiefs can suspend officers for two days without pay before the officer has the right to request a hearing. Legislation introduced this year by Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence) would extend that summary judgement period up to 30 days. 

The commission considered and ultimately rejected the possibility of a 30-day suspension period. The group struck a middle ground, recommending that police chiefs be allowed to suspend officers without pay for 14 days.

The task force also recommended changing the composition of the hearing panel. Under LEOBOR, hearing panels currently consist of three current or former police officers, one chosen by the officer facing discipline, one chosen by the police chief, and one mutually agreed upon by these two or appointed by the presiding justice of the superior court if they can’t reach an agreement. 

Instead, the task force suggested a five-person panel composed of three statewide arbiters, who would not need a background in law enforcement and would serve on all hearing panels, an individual selected by the officer facing discipline and one selected by the police chief. 

Representatives for the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association and the League of Cities and Towns told the task force that they supported extending summary discipline beyond two days and changing the makeup of the LEOBOR hearing panel. 

According to a survey conducted on behalf of the task force, police officers were disciplined more than 900 times in the last five years, and only four LEOBOR hearing panels were convened. All of these panels found the officer guilty, and two reduced the punishment recommended by the chief. 

“The concern was that the system was off-kilter and needs to be brought into a proper balance that not only protects the innocent, but also sheds light and exposes those who abuse their authority, and doesn’t use procedure to cover up wrongdoing,” said Metts, who introduced the legislation creating the task force, and will leave the Senate after losing re-election to progressive primary challenger Tiara Mack. 

The 13-member commission is made up of three state Senators, Attorney General Peter Neronha, State Police Superintendent Col. James M. Manni, Providence Police Chief Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., as well as representatives from community groups including the Providence branch of the NAACP, the Latino Policy Institute, and the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. 

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