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State Report: Racial Profiling, Master Lever Ban + 38 Studios

Saturday, May 03, 2014

 

This week’s State Report centers on a bill introduced by Sen. Harold Metts, which looks to address racial profiling in the Ocean State. Additionally, we’ll look at legislation addressing a variety of issues including the master lever, taxation of for-profit hospitals, and business streamlining. We’ll also look at a House Oversight Committee request asking for testimony from key figures in the 38 Studios debacle.

Addressing Racial Disparity in Traffic Stops

In an attempt to address  the issue of racial profiling by police, Sen. Harold M. Metts introduced legislation this week, the “Comprehensive Community – Police Relationship Act of 2014,” to require all police departments to submit to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Highway Safety an annual report indicating what action has been taken to address any racial disparities in traffic stops and/or searches documented in previous reports.

“More than a decade after collection of traffic stops first began, it is obvious that minorities are still being stopped more often, and searched unreasonably more often, than whites. Even though all reasonable people would acknowledge that driving black is not a crime, statistics show that profiling continues to be the norm around our state,” said Metts. “It is alarming and it needs to be corrected.”

“If our over-arching goal is to foster and develop more and better relations between the community and law enforcement, there needs to be a concerted effort to document what is going on and to see clear evidence that police agencies around the state are attempting to address the problem,” he said. “We can’t wait another 10 years to find things haven’t changed. We need to make changes now.”

The Metts’ legislation, which has been referred to the Senate Committee on Judicairy, makes a number of changes to bills introduced last year but retains the basic provisions of that earlier legislation. The 2014 legislation is the result of an ad hoc group of law enforcement officials and community representatives that met bi-weekly from September, 2013, through March, 2014. The group’s goal was to identify language for a compromise bill which would balance the concerns of the community in respect to stops and searches and those of law enforcement in respect to officer safety and crime-solving.

Creating a balance 

Among those provisions, the legislation requires that each search conducted by a law enforcement officer be documented in a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) entry or other police-generated report and should include the date, time and location of the stop/search, along with the reasonable suspicion or probable cause leading to the search.

The bill prohibits police from requesting of any driver stopped solely for a traffic violation any documentation or identification other than a driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. In any stop, the driver must be notified of the reason for the stop.

The bill requires that in all motor vehicle stops conducted by police vehicles using video and audio equipment, those recordings must begin no later than when the officer first signals the vehicle to stop.

The bill requires that the driver of a motor vehicle, or passenger of the vehicle, which has been recorded with video/audio equipment, and his or her attorney, will have the right to view the recording provided that the viewing does not compromise an active investigation. The legislation also sets a policy that addresses the period of retention of such recordings.

The continued collection of data by police departments would begin in July, 2014, and reports on each stop would be required to include the race and ethnicity of the driver, based on the officer’s perception. The Office of Highway Safety would be required to issue annual reports on the collected data, as well as a quarterly summary report of the monthly data provided by each police department.

Finally, the bill establishes a specific procedure and protocol for searches of juveniles without a warrant. Under the legislation, no juvenile will be requested to consent to a search by law enforcement unless there exists reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity. In those instances where a warrant would otherwise be required, a law enforcement officer must advise the juvenile that he or she may refuse to consent to, or limit the scope of, any requested search.

“As if traffic stops based on race were not bad enough, no youngster should be taken advantage of by police simply because they are young, and probably afraid, and not sure of their rights,” said Senator Metts. “If the police really wish to form better relationships with the community, and especially the youngsters in the community, they need to find less threatening ways to do that. Youngsters need to see police as people who can help them, not people from whom they should run away.”

“The police have a difficult job, and I respect all they do to serve and protect their community,” said Senator Metts. “But they shouldn’t be treating people differently because of the color of their skin.”

Senator Metts said that, though it has taken years to arrive at this point, “I was encouraged to see the parties work together on such a sensitive issue. The system does work when reasonable minds are open and focused.”

Racial profiling study

Released earlier this year, a study by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice found that police are more likely to pull over people of color than white drivers in a majority of Rhode Island communities, but less likely to give them a ticket.

The study, which reviewed more than 150,000 traffic stops made by 39 police agencies during a nine-month period last year, found similar statewide patterns as those reported in a 2004-05 study. Among those findings is that minorities were pulled over at a disproportionate rate when comparing the driver’s race to the racial makeup of the city or town where the stop was made.

 

For more legislative news from the past week, check out the slideshow below. 

 

Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 5/3/14

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Oversight Committee Seeks 38 Studios Testimony

As part of its review of the state’s Job Creation Guaranty Program, the House Oversight Committee has asked a number of key figures – including 38 Studios founder, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling – to testify about their involvement in the state’s decision to back $75 million in loans to the now-bankrupt video game development company.

Oversight Committee Chairwoman Karen L. MacBeth indicated when she became chairwoman last month that she would be interested in using subpoenas to get the information if necessary. In addition to Schilling, the letters were sent to:

  • Former Economic Development Corporation (EDC, now called the Commerce Corporation) executive director Keith W. Stokes
  • Former EDC deputy director J. Michael Saul
  • Sean Esten, Commerce Corporation director of financial programs, who raised concerns about likelihood of 38 Studios’ success while its loan guarantee request was before EDC officials
  • Michael Corso, a Providence lawyer and tax credit broker who served as a consultant to 38 Studios
  • Former House Finance Committee chairman Steven M. Costantino (D-Dist. 8, Providence), who sponsored the legislation authorizing the Economic Development Corporation (now the Commerce Corporation) to create the Job Creation Guaranty Program
  • Former representative Jon D. Brien (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), a cosponsor of that legislation.

 

In the April 22 letters, Chairwoman MacBeth indicated that she would like the recipients to provide insight and describe their involvement with the Jobs Creation Guaranty Program, and that she would like to schedule testimony on the matter in May.

The committee has not yet received any responses to the letters.

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Senate Oks Master Lever Elimination

With a unanimous vote, the House of Representatives approved legislation on Thursday that will eliminate the “master lever,” or straight-party voting option, on all future, non-primary Rhode Island election ballots.

Introduced by Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick), the legislation (2014-H 8072aa) was sent to the House floor on a unanimous vote of the Committee on Judiciary and will now go to the Senate for consideration.

“This is a pragmatic solution to what has been a long and persistent controversy,” said Shekarchi. “At a time when more voters consider themselves independent than a member of either traditional party, the master lever has, I believe, outlived its usefulness. Eliminating this option will require candidates for office to reach out to communities and voters to make their positions known, as opposed to relying on a party label.”

The legislation calls for the elimination of the option of straight party voting by means of a single mark (a master lever) in non-primary elections. Because it is scheduled to take effect upon passage, the legislation, if enacted into law, would be implemented in time for this year’s November election.

To accommodate that change, the legislation passed by the House today includes a requirement for a “Training and Community Outreach” program. It requires the Secretary of State to conduct training and consultations with the State Board of Elections and local boards of canvassers. It also requires the Secretary of State to conduct community outreach programs throughout the state, including the distribution of materials to state and local libraries.

Rhode Island is one of only 14 states, and the only New England state, to still employ the “master lever,” or straight-party voting, procedure in elections.

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Taxation for For-Profit Hospitals

On Wednesday, the Senate passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Roger A. Picard to articulate a community’s right to tax for-profit hospitals, addressing a potential loophole for Woonsocket’s Landmark Medical Center.

The legislation (2014-S 2298A) specifies that tax-exempt status for hospitals extends only to non-profit hospitals. Landmark’s sale to Prime Healthcare Services on Dec. 31 made it the first for-profit hospital in Rhode Island, and while Prime has indicated it fully expected to pay taxes on Landmark, current state law does not address the issue of for-profit hospitals.

“Prime has been very forthright since the beginning about their expectation to be a city taxpayer, but our laws should be clarified for this for any future hospital conversions. We need to say that for-profit hospitals are subject to tax, and give municipalities the means to collect that tax,” said Picard.

The legislation articulates how cities and towns can impose taxes on for-profit hospitals, and provides an exception to the host municipality’s tax levy cap for the year that the hospital converts to for-profit status for the amount it pays. State law limits any municipality from collecting more than 4 percent more revenue in total from all its taxpayers combined in any year than it did the year before. However, a hospital converting from a non-profit entity to a tax-paying one could force a community over that cap.

The bill is retroactive to Dec. 31, 2013, the day on which the sale of Landmark took place.

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House Oks Bill Addressing Business Streamlining

“If there is one thing that gets in the way of business growing and thriving, it’s red tape and excessive bureaucracy,” said Rep. Joseph A. Trillo (R-Dist. 24, Warwick). “Certain government functions are important and valuable, but sometimes government needs to get out of the way.”

The House of Representatives this week unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Trillo to create a special House commission to study and provide recommendations on streamlining the permitting process for businesses in Rhode Island.

The commission, once organized, will be expected to conduct its study and report its findings and recommendations to the House of Representatives by January, 2015. The nine-member panel will include five members of the House, a member of the Rhode Island hospitality industry, a member of the Rhode Island building industry, a member of the service industry and a member of the retail industry.

“It is no secret that Rhode Island, compared to other states, is ranked very low in terms of its attractiveness to business, and while our tax structure is part of the problem, our excessive bureaucracy is also a major concern for companies looking to move here or start up here,” said Trillo. “Through the years, many of our regulations have become outdated and others are just so entrenched that we haven’t taken a good look at them to see if they are still necessary. It’s time for a comprehensive study of this area, with a goal of making Rhode Island much more business friendly.”

“Rebuilding our economy must be our number one priority and doing that will mean finding ways to make it easier for businesses to move here and grow here,” added Trillo. “I think the findings and recommendations of this study commission can be very important to our long-term economic health.”

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Commemorating the Armenian Genocide

Rep. Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence), a fourth-generation Armenian-American, had the honor of commemorating the Armenian genocide of 1915 with the introduction of a House resolution earlier this week.

“Ninety-nine years ago, my great-great-grandmother bid her husband farewell,” Kazarian said. “The Turkish officials summoned him to a meeting. He removed his wedding band, gave it to his wife, mounted his horse and sped off into the night. The next day, his horse returned home without him. Word reached my ancestors that the Turkish officials had killed him.

“And ninety-nine years ago, my great-grandmother then watcher her mother and her baby brother writhing in pain as they lay on the sands of the Syrian desert, only to die of starvation and leave her orphaned. The death marches were planned an executed in an attempt to kill all Armenians.”

The resolution sets aside April 24, 2014 as day to remember the victims of the atrocities that took place against Armenians, but also to serve as a reminder that the world must not allow history to repeat itself. Further, Kazarian asked her colleagues to support her in calling upon Congress to acknowledge and condemn the event that triggered an Armenian diaspora. 

According to the Armenian National Institute in Washington D.C., the genocide resulted in the death of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. It is estimated that close to 2 million Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire just prior to World War I when the Turkish government subjected its Armenian population to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre and starvation.

 
 

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