Rhode Island establishes new civil rights investigation unit

While deliberating on various hate crime complaints for several months, Neronha said he was making this unit an official part of the office and asking local law enforcement agencies to set up their own liaison offices to refer possible cases to them.

“We have to share [information] within hours, not weeks, ”said Neronha.

Ultimately, Neronha said, he hopes that this civil rights unit will continue after his administration is over. “The formalization sends a message that we are taking this seriously,” he said.

Sid Wordell, retired Little Compton police chief and executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said the vast majority of police departments already have officers named as civil rights officers. This practice began when the departments worked with the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, he said.

Police don’t get as many reports of hate crimes, Wordell said, “So you want someone familiar with it to make sure the authorities are kept up to date.” [training]. ”

Rhode Island does not have a hate crime law, but the Hate Crime Conviction Act allows prosecutors to inform the judge that they intend to seek a more severe sentence based on what they believe a defendant’s motivation to commit a crime. The sentence amendment adds another 30 days and cannot be suspended or released, Neronha said.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha speaks at a press conference.Edward Fitzpatrick

This includes cases of offenses that prosecutors would not normally deal with. As early as this summer, the General Prosecutor’s Office is aiming to improve the penalty for hate crimes in two such cases – the first time in five years that the prosecution has applied the measure.

One involved a woman who allegedly shouted racist surnames to a black family at the Narragansett Coast Guard home in June. The case against Christine Longo, 34, from South Kingstown is pending in the district court.

The second case concerned a man accused of attacking and using racial slurs against his Middle East neighbor in Barrington in August. 71-year-old Richard Gordon is currently on trial in a district court on charges of simple assault and disorderly behavior.

The civil rights team was investigating criminal cases against Cranston officer Andrew Leonard and Providence Sgt. Joseph Hanley, both on charges of simple assault but ultimately choosing not to seek improvement in hate crimes. Neronha said they had no evidence that any of the officers behaved differently because of race.

Black Lives Matter Rhode Island leaders had urged Neronha to prosecute Gordon’s case as a hate crime.

“I think it will be helpful,” said Gary Danztler, president of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, of the new civil rights division. “We have to hold every agency accountable to this department. … I think it’s so important that the local police force accuse these people of these hate crimes. “

Mark Fisher, Senior Director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, protests outside the home of Richard Gordon, 71, on Rumstick Drive, who was charged with hate crimes for yelling racist slurs and attacking his neighbor during a property line dispute in August .  3.Mark Fisher, Senior Director of Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, protests outside the home of Richard Gordon, 71, on Rumstick Drive, who was charged with hate crimes for yelling racist slurs and attacking his neighbor during a property line dispute in August . 3.Matthew J. Lee / Globe staff

The civil rights team is led by Assistant Attorney General Daniel Guglielmo, an 18-year-old veteran who works with Assistant Attorney General Robert Johnson and Michael McCabe. They will focus on hate crimes, police misconduct, excessive use of force by the police, and anyone using or threatening violence to interfere with constitutional or legal rights.

You will investigate complaints with the Office’s civil rights attorney, Keith Hoffmann, who is also a member of the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, who trains law enforcement agencies and other organizations on how to investigate bias-motivated misconduct. Hoffmann will also address other civil rights violations, such as non-compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

When it comes to police misconduct, the team follows the Attorney General’s Use of Force Review Protocol, which reviews when police use excessive force, causing grievous bodily harm, and using lethal force.

Civil rights activists called the new entity a step in a positive direction.

“To the extent that the establishment of this new team sends a message to law enforcement agencies that police misconduct will not be tolerated and complaints about the abuse of force by officials are thoroughly investigated, it is a very good thing,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island. “We’ll be interested to see the impact in the months ahead.”

The civil rights team will also be involved in a training and education program in partnership with community organizations such as the Jewish Alliance, the Rhode Island Commission on Prejudice and Bias, and several police departments.

“The attorney general was very supportive of our concerns about the rise in hate crimes, so this is a great first step,” said Stephanie Hague, director of community relations for the Jewish Alliance.

She said they are glad that the local police will be able to identify hate crimes and believes this will add to more coverage. “I think we still have a lot to do,” said Hague, “but it’s moving in the right direction.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.

Comments are closed.