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OPINION

Is Beacon Hill serious about police reform? The mayor of Somerville has his doubts

‘The way the rules and laws are set up by the Commonwealth make it very difficult to ensure transparency and accountability,’ said Mayor Joe Curtatone

A Somerville police officer issued a summons to a pedestrian in April.
A Somerville police officer issued a summons to a pedestrian in April.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Real police reform takes more than platitudes and good intentions. It takes a willingness to change state civil service laws that currently govern labor disputes.

Just ask Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville. For five years, Curtatone has been trying to get his city’s police to wear body cameras. But the Somerville Police Employees Association doesn’t want them. Union representatives bargained to an impasse, which allowed them to take their case to a state board that oversees such contract disputes. In arguing its case, the union said that body-worn cameras are a “new and controversial subject” and are not “an accepted working condition for police officers.”

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The police chief, who is not part of the civil service system, supports body cameras, Curtatone said. According to a recent statement issued by its president, the Somerville Police Superior Officers Association, which represent senior officers, now supports body cameras, too. However, at all previous negotiations, they have opposed it, a spokeswoman for Curtatone said.

The board agreed with the union that body cameras are a change in working conditions that management could not impose. “The facts show that body worn cameras are not a prevailing condition,” the Joint Labor Management Committee concluded, deliberately ignoring a court-ordered body camera pilot program in place at the time in Boston because the results “are not yet concluded.” One panelist representing management dissented. But the “neutral” representative of the three-member panel sided with the union representative. So as of that 2016 ruling, it is case closed on body cameras in Somerville.

The power of police to control their work environment comes deep in the eye-glazing language of collective bargaining agreements that are negotiated behind closed doors, without public input or scrutiny. In Massachusetts, that power is further cemented through an arbitration process, mandated by state law, that reaches binding and final resolutions, “The way the rules and laws are set up by the Commonwealth make it very difficult to ensure transparency and accountability,” said Curtatone, who said he’s going back at the body camera issue with Somerville police.

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has spurred talk across the country — including in Massachusetts — about the need for major police reform. That conversation became more urgent as protesters in cities — including Boston — demand change, and new cases of excessive police force against Black men make headlines, such as the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. But how much talk is just talk?

In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker plans to introduce a bill that would create a system to certify and decertify officers, with details still to come. Meanwhile, House Speaker Robert DeLeo is teaming up with Representative Carlos Gonzaléz, chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, to introduce four proposed reforms: creation of an independent office to review police procedures and certification; abolishing the use of chokeholds; establishing an affirmative obligation for all law enforcement officers to intervene if a fellow officers is improperly using force; and creating a special legislative commission to examine civil service law.

Those who follow Beacon Hill know a commission is where serious reform proposals go to die. So far, that’s exactly where any examination of civil service law appears to be headed. Meanwhile, the state board’s decision to define body camera use in Somerville as a “working condition” subject to collective bargaining is an example of how hard it is to increase police accountability under current Massachusetts law.

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“Wearing body worn cameras is part of the DNA of most police departments today,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. Indeed, said Wexler, most cops now embrace them because when there is some allegation about police misconduct, they can be quickly reviewed, often to the officer’s advantage. “So this union decision is just reflective of what is wrong with the whole union role in what should be management prerogatives or what is actually good for the cops,” said Wexler.

Is what’s being talked about on Beacon Hill real change? “No,” said Curtatone. His criticism extends beyond the Republican governor to lawmakers, most of whom are fellow Democrats. “It is frustrating when I hear so-called progressives on Beacon Hill say they are there for change,” said Curtatone. Even as they say it, he said, “dealing with public safety unions is sacrilegious in their minds.”

Until that mindset changes, reforming the current law enforcement system — not to mention reinventing policing — just can’t happen.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.