In recent weeks, Rhode Island has experienced multiple instances of police violence, underscoring the impact that police violence can have on community safety and trust in law enforcement. These incidents reinforce the importance of clear, strong policies to hold officers accountable for improper use of force and prevent future incidents of misconduct.
On June 23, an off-duty Pawtucket police officer opened fire with his police-issued handgun at a car occupied by three teenagers after following their car into the parking lot of a pizza restaurant in West Greenwich, RI, severely injuring the driver. The officer has been charged with four felonies in connection with the incident. The officer also allegedly had a noted history of aggressive conduct in the performance of his duties, yet was permitted to continue serving.
From the Boston Globe:
Dolan [the officer] shot Vincent [the driver] in the left arm and “terrorized” him and his two friends after following their car off the highway and into a parking lot…
Pawtucket Councilwoman Melissa DaRosa said that she had fielded complaints about Dolan from people in the community when she was a streetworker, and that he had also been aggressive with her… “I saw behavior in him that was concerning. I raised it, they didn’t listen and here we are today.”
In Rhode Island cities like Providence and Pawtucket, police violence poses a dangerous threat, especially to communities of color. On June 30, a group of law enforcement officers pepper sprayed, beat, and forcibly restrained bystanders, including several children, while responding to a call in a neighborhood in South Providence. Video recordings of the incident, including police body camera footage released by the Providence Police Department, show officers verbally threatening and using excessive force against community members, predominantly Black people and people of color, present at the scene. Currently, no officers involved in the incident have been suspended or face any disciplinary action.
From the Providence Journal:
Video of the encounter posted to YouTube shows eight police officers standing across Sayles Street from a crowd gathered on the sidewalk. Officers moved to make an arrest after a teenager entered the roadway and gestured at someone nearby. Officers then surged into the crowd and placed several people under arrest.
Officers can be seen deploying pepper spray as people approach those being handcuffed and arrested. One officer warns, “Who wants some more?”
During the 2021 legislative session, several bills were introduced to increase police accountability, make the disciplinary process more transparent, and create stronger legal standards to prevent police violence. This includes the following bills:
- S 954 and H 6438, which passed both chambers of the General Assembly and will, in conjunction with a $15 million appropriation in this year’s budget, establish a Statewide Body-Worn Camera program to equip every officer in the state with a body camera;
- H 6152 and S 865, which would reform the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) by renaming it the “Law Enforcement Officers’ Accountability Act”, expanding civilian involvement and oversight in the disciplinary process, allowing law enforcement agencies more ability to comment publicly on active investigations, increasing the length of suspensions without pay, and making other significant reforms;
- S 773, which repeals LEOBOR in its entirety; and
- H 5993 and S 597, which would mandate the use of body cameras in most interactions with the public, require annual reporting and tracking of data related to police activity, repealing qualified immunity, creating a statewide use-of-force standard, establishing a duty to report and intervene when officers use excessive force, and more.
However, lawmakers in the Rhode Island General Assembly were unable to reach consensus on changes to LEOBOR before adjourning their legislative session, though they have promised to continue working on it in advance of a potential fall session.
In the wake of these devastating instances of police violence, it is clear that reforms would provide crucial accountability for law enforcement in the state who act irresponsibly and recklessly and help keep communities of color safe, such as:
- A strong legal standard barring unnecessary police use of force and requiring officers to intervene and stop abuse. Law enforcement must be barred from using deadly force except when absolutely necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm, and only after exhausting other means. Lesser forms of force should be prohibited except when necessary to make an arrest. Every officer must be required to intervene when other officers use excessive force.
- A commitment to de-escalation and building community relationships through procedural justice. When police engage in regular, meaningful community outreach and value efforts that support community trust, they become—in the words of the 21st Century Policing Task Force—“guardians” of the community and not “warriors” patrolling it.
- Deployment of formal tools to identify officers who pose a risk of serious misconduct. On the state level, officials should consider setting minimum conduct standards with revocable officer licensing and engaging in regular review of agencies with abusive records.
- A thorough and independent system for reviewing shootings and other use-of-force incidents. Police misconduct must be subject to a clear and consistent scale for discipline. The civilian complaint process must be user-friendly, and police shootings and use-of-force complaints should be reviewed by internal police units that complete their work quickly and are transparent with the public about their findings.
- Transparency about use of force, policies, and procedures. Policing agencies should be required to publish regular reports about officer use-of-force and misconduct investigations, including victim race, and should not be permitted to shield disciplinary records from public disclosure.