In response to nationwide protests throughout the summer of 2020, Democratic politicians across the US vowed to enact bold changes to policing. While most establishment Democrats never embraced calls to defund the police, their professed commitment to less structural reform remains strong. This attitude is in line with the majority of Americans, 58 percent of whom support “major changes” to policing. Even so, Republicans have pushed back on most attempts to rein in cops, making police-related legislation a wedge issue at the forefront of contemporary US politics.
Rhode Island may have seemed an ideal environment for a Democrat-led reimagining of public safety: 33 of 38 state senators are Democrats, as are 65 of 75 House members. However, legislation to hold law enforcement accountable has foundered in the state. Rhode Island serves as a stark example of how, from the state level to the national stage, the stalling of critical police reform is due in large part to Democratic disunity and failure.
Owing to the political clout held by statewide police unions, Rhode Island affords an unwarranted and uncommon level of protection to its police officers. This protection stems mainly from the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR), which makes it all but impossible to hold a cop properly accountable for their misconduct. Under LEOBOR, a three-person panel selected entirely by police officials determines any punishment for an officer beyond a two-day suspension. This means even in the most abhorrent cases, officers who have committed crimes keep their jobs with full pay until they are formally convicted. Rhode Island is the only New England state, and one of only 15 states in the country, with such a statute. The combination of LEOBOR, widespread secrecy privileges that limit disclosure of information regarding police misconduct, and qualified immunity (the legal precedent that protects officers from civil suits) makes it so Rhode Island police officers are held to a lower standard than nearly anywhere else in the country. In an ostensibly hyper-liberal state, the reality of police impunity is appalling.
Although even police unions reluctantly agree that some change may be needed, Rhode Island Democrats this past year failed—whether intentionally or not—to pass a single piece of legislation curbing police power. LEOBOR should be repealed, as Maryland did with its own bill of rights this past April. But Rhode Island lawmakers couldn’t even agree on piecemeal adjustments to LEOBOR (such as a slight expansion of the permitted suspension period) in the 2021 session. To be sure, some influential progressives such as State Senator Tiara Mack pledged to vote against anything short of a repeal. According to State Rep. Anastasia Williams, however, it was the reactionary-yet-nominally-Democratic General Assembly leadership—House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio—who were wholly responsible for the inaction. “What they did was so disingenuous,” Williams said at a June press conference. “They took what I agreed to and created their own bill, and merged the agreement into their own bill and wanted me to run with that… We probably won’t get anything come the fall, either.”
Progressive activists and politicians have begun applying renewed pressure in anticipation of the fall session of the legislature. Even so, it remains unlikely that conservative Democrats like Shekarchi and Ruggerio will sign on to any meaningful changes to LEOBOR. As election season approaches, LEOBOR looks likely to be a flashpoint in the battle brewing between progressive and conservative Ocean State Democrats.
The Rhode Island Democratic Party’s failures reflect fissures on the federal level. For over a year, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were supposedly working on a bipartisan police reform bill after the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in June 2020. Senate negotiations disintegrated in late September, with Democratic Senator Cory Booker and Republican Senator Tim Scott trading shots in the media over why the other side was at fault. President Joe Biden and Senator Booker argued that Scott wasn’t agreeing to basic reforms, even ideas originally put forth by Scott and former President Donald Trump. Their narrative is technically true, but it omits the fact that so-called “moderate” Democrats have also obstructed critical reforms in the name of a compromise that never came. The centerpiece of the Senate reform bill was an end to qualified immunity. A Cato Institute/YouGov survey found that 63 percent of Americans favor the law’s elimination, and Scott had expressed a willingness to compromise. But in May, top-ranking House Democrat Jim Clyburn unexpectedly undermined his party’s negotiations, saying to CNN: “If we don’t get qualified immunity now, then we will come back and try to get it later.” Following Clyburn’s on-air comment, Scott immediately hardened against any change to the doctrine.
Clyburn isn’t alone in causing setbacks for his party’s police reform efforts. After Democrats faced unexpected congressional losses in the 2020 general election, lawmakers like House Representative Bill Pascrell lamented Democratic support not only for defunding police departments, but also for ending qualified immunity—Pascrell said on a caucus call that he’d been forced to “walk the plank” on qualified immunity. Democrats’ failure to coalesce around a coherent reform strategy allows prominent Republicans like Scott to move the goalposts in perpetuity, and emboldens red states to move in the wrong direction: Missouri just passed a brand new LEOBOR.
In Rhode Island and across the nation, Democrats are failing to live up to their summer 2020 promises. It’s easy to blame Democratic ineptitude, but a more plausible explanation is that “liberal” lawmakers are letting necessary reforms die to please their powerful benefactors. Pascrell has received the most in donations—$43,000 since 2004—from police unions among all members of Congress, Democrat and Republican. In fact, the list of politicians who receive the most money from police unions is littered with Democrats. In the Rhode Island General Assembly, some of the top all-time recipients of police and prison guard funding, as of June 2020, are Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin ($10,275), Shekarchi ($12,925), Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey ($15,550), and Ruggerio ($27,475)—all Democrats. It is unsurprising that politicians funded by police unions oppose changes to the laws those same unions brought about.
Although the prevailing wave of violent crime throughout Rhode Island and the nation is often cited as rationale for increased funding and deference to police, delaying critical curbs on police power will further enable cops to persecute Americans with impunity. By dragging their feet on accountability-focused legislation, politicians are facilitating police violence, of which many already-marginalized Black and Brown communities bear the brunt. Police reform is no panacea—the futility of some reforms, such as bias training, have often been used as substitutes for true improvements to the law enforcement system. And ultimately, the conversation around crime should focus on public health, not police: despite the idea’s controversial status among Americans, redirecting police funding toward root causes of violent crime such as affordable housing and education is the only way to make communities safer while preserving citizens’ rights in the long term. But first, Democrats must muster the will to coalesce around popular ideas for which they have an electoral mandate, a legislative consensus, and a moral responsibility.
Image: ABC6 News