Governor Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo are separately readying legislation to sharpen the accountability of the state’s police departments, including by creating a system to certify officers for the first time in Massachusetts history.
The state is one of only a handful without a certification or licensing process for police, even as it’s created a complex system regulating licenses for barbers, electricians, and more than 50 other trades and professions.
Baker is expected to release details of the plan as early as next week, building off the recommendations of a working group he quietly created last year to study creating a Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, system, according to those involved in the process.
It comes as DeLeo committed late Wednesday to wide-ranging legislation that, among other things, would abolish the police’s use of chokeholds and create an independent office to “ensure” enhanced training and police certification, his office said.
The idea of licensing officers has languished for years on Beacon Hill, but has gained new prominence amid intensifying scrutiny of police brutality and tactics following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
In other states, police officers could have their license revoked if they are removed from their positions for wrongdoing under certification systems designed to prevent problem officers from joining a department somewhere else.
Baker, who’s traditionally tight-lipped in discussing legislation ahead of its release, did not explicitly endorse a POST-like system when asked this week, saying at a Tuesday news conference that it was among the ideas he has been discussing with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
But privately, he has quietly been building plans for months, lawmakers and officials say. He created the working group with law enforcement officials and his public safety secretary roughly a year ago to dive into the issue. His administration also has embraced going beyond existing legislation — which would create a commission to study the creation of a system — to actually creating one.
“He’s been working on this with me and the caucus for a year and a half,” said state Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who with Representative David T. Vieira, a Falmouth Republican, has for years pushed to create a system in Massachusetts.
“Now you can see an awful lot of people who want to say this is what they’re for," Holmes said of support for POST amid renewed focus on police accountability. "He was for it when it was just right.”
Caucus members, who this month publicly pushed a series of legislative ideas to reform policing, met Wednesday with DeLeo, who Wednesday night released a joint statement with Representative Carlos González, the caucus chairman, saying lawmakers had agreed to produce an omnibus policing bill and hope to get it Baker by the end of the July.
The legislation would create an “independent” office of police conduct to “ensure minimum statewide policies and procedures,” including police officer certification, DeLeo and González said. Lawmakers will also propose abolishing the use of chokeholds by law enforcement and requiring officers “to intervene in a situation where a fellow officer improperly/illegally uses force."
Exact details of the bill were still in the works, lawmakers said.
“We view the ultimate enactment of this piece of omnibus legislation as our first step along the long road to ensuring the promise of equal justice for all the citizens of the Commonwealth,” DeLeo and González said.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka, in a separate statement Wednesday, said she has formed an advisory group on racial justice that will review and recommend legislation this session in that chamber.
Holmes said he asked Baker to delay the announcement of the legislation until at least next week in order to give him and other members of the Black and Latino caucus more time to meet with police officials, unions, and others to build support for the idea.
“The fact that [Baker] is ready puts pressure on all of the people who normally wouldn’t come and negotiate with the Black and Latino caucus,” Holmes said. “The community needs to know that we heard them and we can pass something quickly. We don’t want this to get tied up in the fight back and forth in the building.”
A spokeswoman for Baker confirmed Wednesday that Baker was working on the legislation and agreed to push back his announcement, saying he has regularly worked with the Black and Latino caucus since taking office in 2015. Baker tapped the state’s public safety secretary, Thomas Turco, to take the lead on the working group.
“After the idea was raised by caucus members, Governor Baker tasked Secretary Turco with working alongside legislators and public safety experts to explore implementing a POST system for Massachusetts law enforcement, a significant undertaking that’s been underway for several months,” said Lizzy Guyton, Baker’s spokeswoman. “The Baker-Polito administration is committed to enhancing transparency and oversight for law enforcement and looks forward to working with the caucus and the Legislature to implement reforms soon.”
Baker’s office declined to release more specific details of the legislation Wednesday.
Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and New Jersey are the only states that have not created or implemented a POST system, according to Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at St. Louis University School of Law who closely studies police licensing.
But the standards can vary widely. While the majority of states lay out various “de-certifiable offenses,” some only allow de-certification if an officer is convicted of a crime, Goldman said.
The types of law enforcement officials covered by the system, which agency oversees it, and whether local departments are required to file reports are all crucial components, he said.
“It’s more than just de-certification,” said Goldman, who has testified on the subject at the State House. “Just because you have a statute, it’s all in the details.”
State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump, who has called for the creation of a POST system, released a study last November that found while Massachusetts has one of the country’s highest hourly requirements for in-service police training (40 hours annually), it has no mechanism to actually enforce the requirements.
Bump said she attended a meeting of Baker’s working group in January, when Turco said his plan was to produce a report by June.
“The police chiefs have been pretty emphatic about this: They have access to hard skills — firearms training, [responding to] a high speed chase, bicycle safety — but there’s not sufficient training in the soft skills: community policing skills, violence de-escalation, domestic violence, civil rights, substance abuse, and mental health,” Bump said.
State Representative Paul F. Tucker, a former police chief, said he’s heard police unions’ concerns in the past about creating a new layer of requirements under a POST system.
“But given the time and the national conversations about policing in general, I think everyone in police unions, and no matter the size of the department, are ready to come to the table and have those tough conversations, when maybe years ago they might not have been,” Tucker said.
The Salem Democrat said he supports a POST system in Massachusetts. “I think it’s long overdue.”