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OPINION

Mass. can transform its policing system to address systemic racism

What is it waiting for?

Lily Marcelin closes her eyes while she attends a protest in Boston Common to honor the life of George Floyd and other Black lives taken at the hands of police.
Lily Marcelin closes her eyes while she attends a protest in Boston Common to honor the life of George Floyd and other Black lives taken at the hands of police.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As the nation mourns the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others at the hands of police, and as cries for justice swell on every city block, Massachusetts has an opportunity and obligation to translate suffering and anger into action for systemic change.

We know by now that none of this is new. We heard the same cries of pain and rage a scant few years ago in the name of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice — and many times before and since.

Then, as now, Black and brown people demanded change. Time after time, promises dissolved in the face of political complacency and police union opposition. Despite modest reforms to policing in Massachusetts, the scourge of impunity in police departments persists, and we are witnessing it in real time.

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Boston is not immune. The Black community in this city still suffers the trauma of historical police abuses, not to mention those that occur daily. Just this week, a federal judge declined the city’s request to dismiss an ACLU of Massachusetts lawsuit challenging a botched Boston police SWAT raid that terrorized an innocent Black family, including their 15-, 5-, and 4-year-old children. The police broke into the wrong home — pointing guns at and handcuffing the parents and 15-year-old — even though they had every reason to know they were at the wrong address. Still, they argued in court that they should not be held accountable for the harm they caused because it was, in the judge’s words, a “mistake.”

Imagine trying that excuse the next time you’re pulled over for speeding.

Modest reforms will no longer suffice. If we in Massachusetts refuse to learn the inescapable lessons of our past, we will be “doomed,” as Emerson College President Lee Pelton wrote this week, “to relive this week’s tragic events over and over again.” To think that we can continue to leave racist systems intact without widespread unrest is as foolish as setting a pot of water on the stove and hoping it won’t boil.

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We need bold systemic changes to address the structural racism and inequality at the root of police brutality. To that end, we call on lawmakers to do three things:

First, invest in our communities instead of police. Local, state, and federal policing budgets have ballooned year after year while social safety supports have been cut or flat funded. Instead of bankrupting our communities with exorbitant budget-overruns for police overtime, we should invest in public health and economic security as top priorities.

Second, reform police practices. Black people should not live in fear of being shot and killed by the police. Yet police increasingly are armored with military-grade weaponry and legally empowered to use significant force in routine interactions with civilians. The job of police officers is to serve and protect their communities; to be, in effect, officers of the peace. They should not be at war with the civilian population.

We must adopt clear substantive standards for police use of force, prohibit the use of tactics such as choke-holds that are known to kill, ban the misuse of tear gas and other military weaponry, and systematically collect and report use of force data to improve policing practices throughout the Commonwealth.

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In addition, Massachusetts should adopt a statewide Peace Officer Standards Training system so that police officers would receive certification by the state, and could be decertified in cases of serious misconduct and abuse. Massachusetts is one of only five states that does not license its police officers, and we must ensure that bad actors don’t get rehired by other police departments.

Finally, we must restore accountability for civil rights violations. Since the early 1980s, courts and legislatures have steadily expanded legal immunity for police who violate people’s civil rights, shielding them from liability for wrongful conduct in nearly every situation. Under the existing Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, police who have clearly and directly violated a person’s constitutional rights cannot be held accountable because of the impossibly high standard the law sets out. On Thursday, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced bipartisan federal legislation to eliminate qualified immunity. Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts has introduced a federal resolution that condemns qualified immunity, and State Rep. Michael Day has introduced a bill on Beacon Hill that would amend the MCRA to limit immunity and ensure a more reasonable standard of conduct. This is an essential fix for our broken system; we cannot hope to prevent police brutality if it carries no consequences.

Governor Baker has rightly denounced the president’s disgraceful, militaristic response to the protests, but at the same time has flooded the streets of Boston with National Guard troops — one of whom was suspended this week and is being investigated for allegedly posting to social media, "You’re all stupid I can’t wait to shoot you tomorrow night.” If the governor wishes to denounce militarism and seek justice for Black and brown people in his state, he should do so with more than words. Legislative leaders, likewise, must take decisive action. They must prioritize people over police unions. Justice and public safety are aligned—no justice, no peace.

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The Commonwealth has the means to transform our policing system in ways that address systemic racism. What are we waiting for?

Rahsaan Hall is the director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.