North Providence legislators take down Pawtucket's pit bull ban

North Providence legislators take down Pawtucket's pit bull ban

PROVIDENCE - Pawtucket Rep. J. Patrick O'Neill was hopeful, maybe even confident, that what he called a "bad bill" overturning his city's ban on pit bulls might die without a Senate sponsor. The bill, which prohibits all cities and towns from instituting ordinances that ban certain breeds of dogs and cats, had already passed the Rhode Island House of Representatives, and the end of this year's legislative session was fast approaching.

But two North Providence veterans of the Rhode Island General Assembly, Sen. Frank Ciccone a Democrat serving District 7 in Providence and North Providence, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, of District 4 in Providence and North Providence, took the bill and got their colleagues to join them in running with it.

The ban on breed-specific bans still needs Gov. Lincoln Chafee's signature, and Pawtucket officials, led by Mayor Donald Grebien and City Council President David Moran, were planning to send a letter to the governor on Wednesday imploring him to veto the ban on breed-specific ordinances instead of signing off on it.

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There are several pit bull bans in Rhode Island, including ones in Pawtucket and nearby Central Falls, but Providence and North Providence have no such law.

So why were Ruggerio and Ciccone, whose constituents are not impacted directly by a ban on pit bulls, so concerned about the law?

As if Pawtucket officials weren't angry enough by outsiders deciding to toss their pit bull ban, first established in 2004, Ciccone took several shots at them as he explained his reasons for supporting the new law.

He told The Breeze that his philosophy differs from that of Pawtucket Animal Control Officer John Holmes when it comes to how to treat animals, particularly pit bulls, saying that Holmes' method is "to pick up the pit bulls and destroy" them.

The House bill he put his name on for a mirror Senate version eliminates the stigma attached to the pit bull dog breed, said Ciccone. As Pawtucket officials have conceded on numerous occasions, he said, no breed should be labeled vicious in itself, adding that it is the people who raise them the wrong way who are to blame.

Holmes blasted Ciccone's assertion that he prefers to put pit bulls down, saying the statement was "totally ridiculous" and "offensive." Though he doesn't have final numbers yet, far fewer pit bulls have been put down since the 2004 ban went into effect, said Holmes.

"Obviously this person doesn't know me," he said, referring to Ciccone.

State lawmakers have "set Pawtucket back 10 years," said Holmes. When it was passed, the pit bull ban discouraged the keeping of pit bulls by "macho guys" and "drug dealers," said Holmes, creating a safer environment for residents, police officers and even pit bulls themselves.

"This pit bull law has worked tremendously," he said.

Though there has been some question on whether the new law actually nullifies existing ordinances, members of Pawtucket's General Assembly delegation agree that it does.

Ciccone said that the new law will force Pawtucket officials to spend more time concentrating on laws "pertaining to the abuse of animals" and punishing criminals than on targeting certain breeds.

Prior to the House vote last week on the ban on breed-specific ordinances, Pawtucket Rep. O'Neill told his colleagues that Pawtucket had an "epic problem" with people using pit bulls as "weapons" prior to the 2004 ban.

How are those legislators from outside of Pawtucket who voted to nullify its pit bull ban going to answer when a major incident happens because of their decision? asked O'Neill. Are they going to say that "they knew better" than the leaders and residents of Pawtucket who pushed to have the law enacted to improve local quality of life?     

"Why aren't we leaving this up to cities and towns?" he asked.

Rep. Thomas Palangio, of Providence's House District 3, said he proposed his bill because he doesn't believe it's right to target a breed when it's the owners of the dogs who are responsible for how the dogs behave. Too many dogs are being put down because of breed-specific ordinances, he said.

Ciccone told The Breeze he became interested in changing the law on breed-specific ordinances in part because his daughter works with Palangio on the Providence Animal Rescue League. He was also convinced on the merits of the bill by his own experiences with dogs, said Ciccone, as he has personally owned mongrels, Rottweilers and Dobermans, and his daughter had a pit bull.

"It's all about how the dog is trained," he said. "These are good dogs."

A spokeswoman for the Rhode Island General Assembly said that the 2004 Senate vote in favor of Pawtucket's pit bull ban was unanimous, meaning that Ciccone and Ruggerio both originally voted for it unless they were absent.

Ruggerio has not returned calls for comment.

As for O'Neill's suggestion that the General Assembly should stop telling city and town officials what to do on local issues, Ciccone laughed at the notion. State leaders have "consistently" told local officials what to do over the years, he said, from the 2011 pension reform to ever-changing rules and regulations on education, and will continue to do so.