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A pivot on police discipline in Rhode Island? How officers' bill of rights might change

The General Assembly is poised to make the first major changes in more than 25 years to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, with leaders in both legislative chambers saying they’re committed to reforming a bill that was first adopted in the mid-1970.

What that will look like has been the source of much debate after a 13-member special task force commissioned by Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio recommended several significant changes in late 2020, after meeting seven times over five months.


They include the way — and the extent to which — police officers can be disciplined and how much can be disclosed publicly. One bill has been filed in the Senate to abolish the law, while two are pending in the House that would make structural changes. 


“I think our legislators need to consider making the process more transparent and opening it up to some public participation,” said Vincent F. Ragosta Jr., an attorney who has prosecuted more than 100 bill of rights cases for municipalities in Rhode Island over the last 42 years. “Here we are dealing with law enforcement officers who can commit some pretty significant offenses and violate policies, rules [and regulations] — and the public trust — and you’ve got to move a mountain before you can terminate them.”


The law says a police chief can only mete out a two-day suspension without pay for administrative violations, unless the officer accepts a stiffer punishment, without a full-blown hearing. The department can suspend someone without pay if the officer is charged with a felony.


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On the other side of the argument is attorney Joseph F. Penza Jr., who has represented police officers and sat across the table from Ragosta for decades. “Let’s talk about what you want to accomplish by changing the law,” he said.


 “I’ve never heard a police chief say I can’t punish someone because of the bill of rights,” Penza said. “I’ve heard them say I’m not happy with it because I can only give a two-day suspension. I’m not happy that I can’t talk about it. But no one ever says I can’t punish someone because of the bill of rights.”


The original law was passed when heavy-handed police chiefs were disciplining officers 50 years ago with little due process. In 1974, Florida and Maryland became the first states to pass a law enforcement officers’ bill of rights law. In 1976, Rhode Island became the third state to adopt a version of it, and a dozen states followed their lead in the 1980s and 1990s.


But Ragosa describes it as a “Rhode Island-style super-sized” personnel process, more complex than the procedures in the other 14 states with such legislation.

In Rhode Island, if the chief wants to give out more than two days of unpaid punishment and the officer challenges it, the department can suspend the officer, and a three-member bill of rights panel is convened to hear the case. But the department has to pay the officer (including health benefits) for the duration of the process, which typically plays out over several months or longer. If the officer is charged with a felony, the chief can suspend without pay while the case works its way through the judicial system.


Ragosta says that differs from the disciplinary process for most municipal employees.


“With other employees, you can impose discipline after meeting with them, explaining evidence, or giving them an informal hearing,” he said. “If you decide to suspend or terminate, then the employee can file a grievance or an arbitration.”


Opening up hearing panels to civilians

For a bill of rights hearing, one member of the panel is chosen by the officer, one by the chief and the third is considered a neutral party, but must have a law enforcement background, which Ragosta says is a problem.


“When you have cops judging cops in a state like Rhode Island, where there’s a lot of interoperability between towns, these cops all know one another,” he said. “A lot of them are bonded together by union affiliation.”


The Senate task force recommended increasing the bill of rights panel to five members and changing the panel's makeup: keeping one member each chosen by the officer and the chief — but adding three civilians who would form a standing committee — something Penza does not favor.


“If I have a situation where I have civilians on the board, I have to bring in an expert witness as to how police departments run. I think the process is going to be drawn out even more,” Penza said. “Second — who is going to pay these civilians? These hearings, some of the more serious ones, can go on for five or six dates.”


Should police chiefs have more latitude to discuss cases?

The law dictates that chiefs can say little about a case, unless it’s a felony. Over the years, many chiefs have refused to even acknowledge publicly that an officer is under investigation, out of fear of jeopardizing the process. Critics say that has caused public skepticism that there is something to hide.


Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, agrees with one task force recommendation: that chiefs should be able to say something if they’re seeking to terminate an officer. Wordell was an officer and police chief in Little Compton before joining the chiefs association. 


“There’s got to be the ability for a chief to say: Here’s the circumstances, here’s where we are, and this is what we’re going for, or what we think is appropriate, on the discipline side,” he said.


“When it’s non-criminal, discipline is not meant to be punitive by releasing personnel records into the public," he added. "This isn’t public shaming either.”


Wordell told the Senate task force studying potential changes in late 2020 that 23 departments responded to a survey and said the bill of rights was triggered 22 times over the previous 10 years, but not all went to a full hearing. He added that over the past five years there were 262 suspensions of two or three days, and 90% of the time officers accepted the discipline from the chief.


Penza said he’s had two bill of rights hearings over the last five years, adding that the two sides often negotiate outside of a full hearing. He said the overwhelming majority of cases where police chiefs sought discipline were resolved without going to a hearing.


“The process is working," Penza said. "Police officers that should get fired, get fired. There are bad cops, but there are also bad chiefs.”


Ragosta said the number of bill of rights cases may be small because many police chiefs, faced with a potentially long and expensive process, will give a two-day suspension for something they believe warrants stiffer punishment.


“A lot of chiefs will look at an offense that is significant, but rather than go through the charging process, the expense of hiring an attorney, paying a court reporter, whatever the disciplinary scenario they’re confronted with, they’ll try to make it fit into that summary punishment category,” he said.


Penza says a proposal to increase the amount of punishment a chief can impose — the Senate task force recommended 14 days — could result in an increasing number of officers choosing to take their case to a bill of rights board.


“If you give someone two days, they’re going to take it,” he said. “If you give somebody 14 days — start translating this into dollars and cents. Two-day suspension may be $600 to $800; 14 days $4,000 to $6,000. They’ll take it to arbitration.”


Penza said that the arbitration process can take seven to nine months. Changes to the Rhode Island bill of rights law made in 1995 attempted to streamline the process to get a quicker resolution, since the officer is being paid until the conclusion of a case.


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James Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, was a member of the 13-member Senate task force. He said that George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 was a catalyst for critics to push for changes in Rhode Island’s bill of rights law.


He said that 35 states don’t have bill of rights legislation, including all the other New England states.

“Prove to me why we need it here, when Massachusetts and Connecticut don’t have it,” Vincent said. “I have not heard one person giving me anything resembling anything that makes sense as an argument. Other than we’ve done it for the last 50 years.”


Tony Capezza also sat on the Senate task force. At the time he was the state director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, and a 23-year veteran of the Cranston Police Department.


“I think that anybody who really knows the process knows it works well,” said Capezza, who has since retired as director but still lobbies on behalf of the IBPO.


Capezza voted against what eventually became the three major recommendations by the task force: increasing a police chief’s ability to punish from two days to 14 days without pay; expanding the bill of rights panel from three to five members, with three members from the public; and giving chiefs greater flexibility when speaking publicly about a case where they are seeking termination on non-criminal matters.


“The bottom line is the system works,” Capezza said. “When discipline is needed, the chiefs hand it out. And the reason why the number of hearings is so low, for the most part, the police officers accept what the punishment is. They accept it because if they screwed up, they know they screwed up.”


North Providence case reignites debate about bill of rights

But a recent case involving a North Providence sergeant has the town’s mayor on a mission to change the law, because a panel rejected the chief’s recommendation to fire the officer.


Police Chief Alfredo Ruggiero Jr. moved to terminate Sgt. Scott Feeley after an internal affairs investigation charged him with 97 violations of department policy in a 27-page report. They ranged from not being truthful, conduct unbecoming an officer and violations of duty to obey, to gross incompetence, insubordination and acts of biased policing.


The panel found him guilty on 79 of the 97 charges but stopped short of termination. Instead, the 56-year-old Feeley was demoted from sergeant to patrolman and ordered to serve a 45-day unpaid suspension, which ended Monday. Feeley had come to North Providence in 2009 after spending nearly 23 years in Pawtucket; he was a detective when he left the force there.


From the day Feeley was suspended to his reinstatement, it took 13 months and cost the town more than $125,000 in pay and attorneys fees to prosecute the case.


Mayor Charles Lombardi questions how the Police Department can take Feeley back since he was found guilty of not being truthful during an internal affairs review. Ragosta, who prosecuted the case for North Providence, agrees with the mayor that Feeley is now compromised as an officer.


“A defense lawyer would rip him apart on the stand if he ever went to court,” Ragosta said.


Lombardi’s main complaint: the person who chaired the panel and is considered the “neutral” party is a lieutenant from the East Providence Police Department who voted with Feeley’s representative on the panel against termination. Lt. Michael Rapoza wrote in his decision:


“The question lies with whether or not Sergeant Feeley can return to the North Providence Police Department as a [productive] member of the agency. There is no doubt Sergeant Feeley has tarnished the trustworthiness of subordinates through his own actions,” Rapoza wrote.

Rapoza also noted that “there does seem to be some outside influence by Mayor Lombardi when it comes to discipline and day-to-day operations in the North Providence Police Department.”


Rapoza continued: “There seems to be a lack of progressive discipline … during [Feeley’s] tenure with the North Providence Police Department. My decision to discipline does not cause me pleasure; in fact this is one of the most difficult decisions I have made in almost 19 years in law enforcement. The responsibility to administer discipline against another police officer is immense.”


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Lombardi, who is also president of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, was furious. In an interview with The Hummel Report, he said: This is not the DPW; this is the law enforcement agency of the town. What do we do with this guy? He was found guilty of failing to obey, truthfulness. Because of the number of charges and the way it was handled in the final decision, this is insulting. The process complicates and diminishes the code of ethics of law enforcement.”


Feeley’s case stemmed from incidents where he did not call in traffic stops; spent two hours smoking a cigar in the back of the police station and spoke in an unprofessional tone to a superior officer. Then, he lied during an internal affairs investigation.


Ragosta agrees that the complexion of many bill of rights panels is problematic.


“Unions exist to protect employees, so it can be a little unsettling when you’re trying a case to seek to terminate somebody and the neutral [hearing board member] was on the executive board of the local union, or a president,” he said. “It’s not a very objective way to judge misconduct.”


He said Rapoza’s acknowledgment in his decision about the “difficult decision” proves his point: cops are hesitant to discipline their brethren.


Lombardi spoke last month to the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association about changes to the bill of rights law and is sending each member of the General Assembly a two-page reflection on the Feeley decision — urging them to pass new legislation.


Lombardi writes, “Let me be perfectly clear, 99 percent of our state’s police officers are second to none. They are decent, honorable and professional.”


He continued, “Think about this, a police lieutenant from another community got to decide what was best for the North Providence Police Department with total disregard for our chief’s recommendation. My question is, if a civilian or business person was selected as the neutral member, would they have deferred to our police chief’s recommendation for termination?  I would guess ‘yes.’”


Feeley's lawyer: Mayor is 'poster child' for why bill of rights exists

Feeley, through his attorney, John Grasso, declined to comment. Grasso, however, unloaded on Lombardi in an email to The Hummel Report.


“Scott Feeley cannot talk with you about his [bill of rights] case because Scott Feeley knows first-hand how vindictive the Mayor of his Town is and will be if the Mayor disagrees with anything Scott says,” Grasso wrote. “Scott also knows that if the Mayor of his Town directs his Chief of Police to punish Scott for saying things that the Mayor does not agree with, that his Chief of Police will do what the Mayor tells him to do.


“I have very strong feelings on the proposed destruction of [the officers’ bill of rights] …To those of us who have relied on it in the trenches to protect good officers from bad administrators, we know it is the absolute minimum protection. It does not insulate any officer who perpetrated an actual wrongdoing. It helps some officers who are the targets of an administration’s abuse of power. The Mayor of North Providence is the poster child for why [the officers’ bill of rights] exists.”


Ruggiero, the town’s chief who recommended termination, said that before Feely goes back out on the road, he has to regain various certifications that lapsed during his 13-month absence. They include qualifying at the gun range and being trained in use of force and tasers, as well as mental health training.


On Monday he will return to the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift he had been working as a supervisor. Now he will be working as a patrolman and is excluded from taking any promotional exams for the next two years, as part of the bill of rights decision.


What changes are under consideration by the General Assembly?

So what will happen in this year’s legislative session?


Sen. Tiara Mack, D-Providence, has filed a bill repealing the entire bill of rights, which does not have the support of Ruggerio, the Senate president.


Rep. Thomas Noret, D-Coventry, filed legislation that would allow a chief to suspend an officer for five days without a hearing, and would shorten the timeline for the bill of rights process.


On Monday, Rep. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, filed a bill similar to the one she submitted — then withdrew — during last year’s session. One change: calling it “The Law Enforcement Officers' Accountability Act.” It would allow a chief to suspend an officer for up to 15 days without pay.


It also specifies who would be on the expanded bill of rights panel. The three civilian members would include the chair of the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights or a designee; the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice or a designee; and the dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law, or a designee. The two other members would remain as before, with one selected by the chief and one by the officer.


Perhaps the biggest change in Williams' bill, which was outside the scope of the task force’s recommendation: police officers would be treated like other municipal employees. They would be able to ask for a bill of rights hearing, but only after the punishment takes effect — making it essentially an appeals process. 


Ragosta hailed that proposed change.


“Police chiefs will no longer be handcuffed and impeded from imposing swift and appropriate disciplinary sanctions, as contrasted to the current [bill of rights] system, which neuters them to merely recommending discipline and embarking on a lengthy legal journey to purge violent, untruthful, abusive or otherwise errant or deviant officers.”


Penza said the bill of rights law already holds officers accountable and that in recent cases no officer has ever been completely exonerated by a three-member panel.


“Finally, the burden of proof has been turned on its head by the proposed legislation,” he said. “I am unaware in any labor setting where the accused employee in a disciplinary action has to prove his/her innocence by clear and convincing evidence, as opposed to the employer having to prove its case by a fair preponderance of the evidence. No officer will ever get a fair hearing if this legislation passes.”


House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi said, through a spokesman: “We worked hard on this issue last year and came very close to a resolution with all the parties involved, but we could not reach consensus. I am committed to continuing the work this year to accomplish real reform.”

Senate President Ruggerio, also through a spokesman, noted the work the task force did in 2020.


“They voted overwhelmingly against the full repeal of [the bill of rights], instead recommending three important reforms: removal of the gag clause so that police chiefs can speak openly about police misconduct investigations; the addition of two neutral arbiters to the hearing review panel; and an expansion of summary discipline from two days to 14 days, which amounts to almost a month’s suspension. The Senate remains committed to passing those three key reforms.”


The Hummel Report is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that relies, in part, on donations. For more information, go to Reach Jim at

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