If history is any guide, even rioting may not be enough to bring about fundamental change in the Rhode Island Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which — despite efforts at substantial revision — has seen only light amendment since it was passed in 1976.
The protesters filling streets for more than a week have shifted the political landscape — again — under the feet of elected leaders still trying to re-calibrate a world of pandemic policy-making.
How else to explain attention suddenly turning toward the law that governs how police misconduct cases are adjudicated?
An overhaul of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights was one of 17 items in Rep. Anastasia Williams’ agenda to heal the wounds of racism in the state. It was long past time to “root out” police not fit to wear a badge, Williams said on the State House steps with House leaders at her side.
Among other things, the police bill of rights prevents police chiefs from immediately firing officers accused of misconduct and guarantees them pay while on administrative leave awaiting a hearing before their peers.
Asked at a Black Lives Matter news conference on Friday whether she supports changes to the officers’ bill of rights, Gov. Gina Raimondo said “it’s time for change.”
But if history is any guide, even civil unrest may not be enough to change the law enforcement officers bill of rights.
None of the thousands of bills introduced this year, or last year, would have overhauled the police bill of rights.
You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find the last coordinated effort to amend the law, a push by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association and the League of Cities and Towns.
Here’s how that fared:
“People looked at me like I was crazy,” then-director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns Daniel Beardsley told Political Scene on Friday. “It was first time I couldn’t find a sponsor for a bill.”
The bill municipal officials were seeking in 2010 would have replaced one of the active-duty police officers on the closed-door panel with a retired judge, Beardsley said, and increased the length of time officers could be suspended.
“I had all the background and I had statistics,” he said. “I had all this ammunition I was going to use during the hearings, but try as I might, I could not find a sponsor, Republican or Democrat.”
The law enforcement officers bill of rights was introduced by then-Sen. Majority Leader John Hawkins in 1976 and passed that year. According to Beardsley, there have been only minor amendments since.
It’s unclear whether the “overhaul” that Williams proposes would look anything like what the League of Cities and Towns proposed a decade ago.
Or whether it would bring all-out opposition from police unions.
Asked whether the International Brotherhood of Police Officers would be open to changes in the officers’ bill of rights, lobbyist Anthony Capezza Jr., on Friday said only that the union would listen.
“I am always willing to sit down and listen to any concerns someone may have about the LEOBR,” Capezza wrote in an email. “I do intend to contact Rep. Williams in the near future to ask to sit down with her and listen to her concerns.”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello on Thursday said he would be open to hearings on the issue after this session is over, but wouldn’t go any further.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not respond to requests for comment on the issue Friday.
“Since 9/11, first responders became sacrosanct; no one wants to do anything to piss them off,” Beardsley said, adding that even the demonstrations dominating discourse last week are unlikely to shift the balance of power.
How confident is he a substantial overhaul of the officers’ bill of rights won’t pass anytime soon?
“I’d bet my house on it,” Beardsley said.
‘I voted’ finalists
It’s been such a heavy few weeks, few things could bring much levity or comfort.
One possible remedy, for political nerds at least: more Rhode Island “I Voted” sticker designs.
In response to an Access to Public Records Act request, the state Board of Elections provided Political Scene copies of the designs that didn’t make the finals of the recent competition to create an image that will be handed out to people leaving the polls in the fall.
The winning design was chosen by voters in an online poll between eight finalists chosen, one each, by members of the Board of Elections and Secretary of State.
Drawn by Wheeler School student Isaiah Suchman, the winning sticker features the State House dome in shades of blue with a gold Independent Man on top.
But those eight finalists were chosen from 120 entries.
Many of those that didn’t make the cut featured stars and stripes, and crashing-wave and anchor motifs.
Some designers went hyper-local, using images like the Big Blue Bug (aka Nibbles Woodaway) and a Del’s-like “I voted” lemon.
Neither of those ideas won over board members and neither did the “I’m a votah” sticker.
GOP lawsuit continues
House GOP leader Blake Filippi’s lawsuit against top Assembly Democrats continues through the pandemic.
Last week, Filippi’s attorneys — former state GOP chairman Brandon Bell and former Rep. Nicholas Gorham — filed their rebuttal to a motion to dismiss the case. They argue that the legislature has been operating unlawfully for more than a decade.
The crux of the issue is whether state law requires the five-member bipartisan panel of lawmakers known as the Joint Committee on Legislative Services to approve Assembly spending, hiring and operations.
The Committee, which includes the top Democrat and Republican of each chamber, plus the House majority leader, has not met in more than a decade, which Filippi says violates the 1960 law that created the JCLS.
“The core of Plaintiff’s claim is that JCLS has not acted and has not carried out its statutory authority and obligation in defiance of the JCLS Act and the JCLS Rules,” the memorandum argues. “This violates Filippi’s right, and his duty as a member, to participate in the operation of JCLS.”
In their motion to dismiss — Mattiello, Ruggerio, House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi, Senate GOP leader Dennis Algiere, and JCLS executive director Frank Montanaro, argued that the law does not say how or when the committee has to meet or act. Forcing the JCLS to do anything would be a improper interference in legislative affairs, they argue.
The latest GOP filing says if the legislature doesn’t want the JCLS to approve Assembly operations, lawmakers can repeal the law, but haven’t done so.
The fight over the JCLS arose early this year when Mattiello ordered a legislative audit of the Rhode Island Convention Center without seeking JCLS approval.
He canceled the audit when challenged by Filippi, but a grand jury was probing whether the audit was an attempted threat when the coronavirus hit.
A hearing on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the JCLS case is scheduled for June 22.
The General Assembly’s three-month hiatus will end, albeit fairly briefly, the week of June 15, Democratic leaders announced on Friday.
When they do the Senate is expected to authorize proxy voting for lawmakers not comfortable meeting in person with coronavirus still in the community.
Compared with other state legislatures, the General Assembly has been conservative in adopting alternative procedures for deliberating under COVID-19.
In a perfunctory hearing on the proxy voting rule change proposal, Senate legal counsel Richard Sahagian, the only witness, said video conferencing tools were not considered for lawmaking because “not every senator has the requisite hardware or technical capabilities.”
Asked by Senators Mark McKenney, D-Warwick, and James Sheehan, D-North Kingstown, whether the Senate had looked at meeting in different places with more space, as other state legislatures have, Sahagian said not in any detail.
Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, wondered if notarization was really necessary for all proxy votes.
A physical document with paper and stamp, “is the safest way,” Sahagian said.
Common Cause Rhode Island has criticized the Senate’s proxy voting plan for, among other things, requiring senators to get permission from leadership to cast a vote remotely and for lacking any procedure for dealing with amendments.
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