Rhode Island is one of about 15 states that has a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, or LEOBOR. The law was created in 1976.

LEOBOR limits to two days the amount of time that a police officer can be suspended without pay, without triggering a so-called Board of Rights hearing.

LEOBOR hearings are conducted by three active or retired police officers, with one picked by the chief, one by the officer under investigation, and a third chosen by both or the presiding Superior Court justice if the two sides can not reach agreement. LEOBOR also restricts the ability of police chiefs to publicly discuss details of these cases.

Police unions say LEOBOR ensures due process and guards against arbitrary punishment by police administrators.

But Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, said the public should have the right to see the results of investigations of police misconduct. As it stands, he said, the LEOBOR process is veiled and the law severely limits the ability of police administrators to discipline officers for any length of time without a convoluted process.

“If you look at the rights that are in LEOBOR when it comes to interrogation of officers," Brown said, "they actually have more rights than the criminal defendants that they themselves interrogate for alleged crimes.”

For decades, police unions’ support for LEOBOR was so strong that attempts to make even minor changes ran into a brick wall of opposition in the General Assembly.

But the status quo changed in 2020, when the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked a nationwide movement for racial justice and calls for greater police accountability. Demonstrations across the country and in cities like Providence attracted notice on Smith Hill.

As a result, legislative leaders signaled a willingness to consider changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

In December 2020, a Rhode Island Senate task force recommended expanding LEOBOR hearing panels, from three to five members, with two additional people who are supposed to be neutral.

The task force also backed allowing police chiefs to discuss parts of the hearing process, and expanding from 2 to 14 the number of days that a chief can unilaterally suspend an officer without pay.

As the legislature entered its home stretch last June, the bill to reform LEOBOR appeared on track for passage. In the end, however, momentum stalled and finger-pointing began.

The legislative sponsors, state Rep. Anastasia Williams and Sen. Ana Quezada, both Providence Democrats, used a news conference to blame legislative leaders for how things fell apart. Williams maintains that attempts to reform LEOBOR were undermined by what she calls fear.

“Fear on the part of those that are in control, those that have been utilizing it to benefit, those that know they can be covered and protected by it," Williams said.

John Donley, president of the statewide chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said police unions like the FOP and International Brotherhood of Police Officers were open to the proposed changes to LEOBOR.

“It wasn’t held up on our accord or because of the IBPO or any other group," he said. “It just kind of fizzled, and it wasn’t anything that we stopped or we prevented.”

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said LEOBOR stalled last year because of push back from some state representatives whom he declined to identify.

House Speaker Joe Shekarchi cites a similar explanation: “There were members of the General Assembly who just didn’t feel comfortable that it was ready to vote.”

A survey compiled by the Senate task force in 2020 found that police officers around the state had been disciplined hundreds of times in the previous five years, and that only a few LEOBOR hearing panels were assembled during that time.

Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, cites that finding in rejecting the view that LEOBOR blocks appropriate discipline.

“I don’t think those numbers show that it’s impeding in meting out discipline in officers,” he said.

Some critics, like state Sen. Tiara Mack (D-Providence), believe LEOBOR has such a negative impact that it should be abolished, rather than reformed.

“The only way to get true accountability and transparency within the police departments in our state is to repeal LEOBOR,” Mack said,

But there’s no real appetite in the General Assembly for eliminating the law. Instead, the question is the extent to which legislation will change how LEOBOR works in Rhode Island.

After things fell apart last year, Speaker Shekarchi said he’s optimistic that lawmakers will reform LEOBOR this year, and Senate President Ruggeiro goes even farther.

“We’re committed to passing this bill,” Ruggerio said.

What actually happens will not become clear until later in this legislative session.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@ripr.org. Follow him on Twitter @IanDon. Sign up here for his weekly RI politics and media newsletter.