Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday unveiled legislation to create the first certification system for Massachusetts police officers in state history, a step he and lawmakers of color said would add substantive accountability to law enforcement.
The bill would impose a range of new and sharpened requirements on the thousands of State Police troopers, municipal officers, and other law enforcement officials in Massachusetts, including the potential of stripping the licenses permanently of those who “don’t live up” to their oath.
More broadly, its backers framed the legislation as an initial step toward translating the demands from protesters, who’ve repeatedly marched against police brutality and structural racism, into new laws.
“The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers made clear that now is the time to get this done,” Baker said at a State House news conference with members of the state’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, with which Baker has worked for months to craft the proposal.
State Representative Carlos Gonzalez, the chairman of the caucus, said the legislation is evidence “the protests have been heard.”
“And now it’s time to answer the prayers,” he said.
Under the bill, police officers would have to complete a certain number of hours to earn a license, which would then need to be renewed every three years. The state would also create a database where the public could look up the status of individual officers.
The legislation also lays out a detailed set of violations that would cost an officer his or her certification, ranging from a conviction for a felony and some misdemeanors to being fired for falsifying evidence or making a false arrest.
An officer’s license would also be automatically revoked if he or she has a “sustained,” or confirmed, internal affairs complaint for using a chokehold, using excessive force that causes serious injury, or engaging in “conduct that would constitute a hate crime,” among other things, according to the bill. A newly created Police Officer Standards and Accreditation committee also could revoke or suspend a certification, or issue a reprimand for other misconduct.
The system would cover Transit Police officers who patrol the MBTA, University of Massachusetts police, and sheriff’s deputies. Correction officers, who work in the state’s prisons, would not be included under the proposal, Baker said.
Once a certification is revoked, an officer would be barred from applying for certification again in the state, effectively ending his or her career in Massachusetts. The committee would also send the names of those officers to a national database.
“That sends a strong message, saying that if you engage in X type of conduct that you’re not going to be able to be a police officer anymore,” said Dic Donohue, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a former Transit Police officer who was injured during the pursuit of the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013.
Baker, a Republican, has signaled since last week he’d seek to create a type of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, system in the state. Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states without a certification or licensing process for police, even as it’s created a complex system regulating licenses for barbers, electricians, and more than 160 other trades and professions.
The idea of licensing officers has languished for years on Beacon Hill, but has gained new prominence amid increasing scrutiny of police brutality and tactics following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Under Baker’s bill, the system would be overseen by the accreditation committee, a 14-member group made up of law enforcement officials and at least six civilians appointed by the governor. At least half the committee members would be people of color, according to Baker’s office.
The bill adds to what’s been a years-long push by some lawmakers, including state Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and former chairman of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
Appearing alongside Baker, Holmes said advocates and lawmakers have spent years “shouting, absolutely screaming in the wilderness” for a certification system, only to see proposals languish. He said the hope is to pass the legislation through the House and Senate by late July, to both enforce statewide training standards and allow the public easier access to the records of individual officers.
“Anyone with a badge and a gun — and typically, almost unfortunately, in this state that’s a white guy — any one of them who pulls me over needs to make sure that they have the appropriate training to understand my culture, who I am,” Holmes said at the news conference.
“Never again should I be sitting on the sidewalk with my arms behind my back in handcuffs while you search my car, and I can’t see who you are,” he said. “I want to know who you are.”
The bill lands amid a nationwide reckoning over policing and systemic racism, and on Beacon Hill, is expected to add to the already significant momentum for reform.
In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh called racism a public health crisis, and vowed to reroute millions from the budget for police overtime toward other programs. Some community activists are pushing to remove police officers from schools, and city councilors say they’ll push for reforms that have been shelved for years, including the creation of a strong civilian oversight board.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has committed to wide-ranging legislation that, among other things, would abolish the use of chokeholds by police and create an independent office to “ensure” enhanced training and police certification.
And on Tuesday, the Legislature’s Black and Latino caucus and leaders of some of the state’s biggest police unions agreed on a list of building blocks for similar police reforms in legislation, following nine hours of meetings over two days.
The cooperation alone marked a novel moment in the debate, indicating the pursuit of legislative changes could avoid the type of staunch opposition that past efforts have faced.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, who is president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association, said he hopes the proposal helps “restore faith and confidence in our profession.” He said several aspects of the bill, including punishing officers who use chokeholds or fail to intervene with officers using excessive force, are already emphasized in many departments’ policies.
“We support it because it’s what we do already,” he said.
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.
The standards can vary widely. While the majority of states lay out various “decertifiable offenses,” some only allow decertification if an officer is convicted of a crime, Goldman said. He applauded the proposed inclusion of the State Police under Massachusetts’ system, but questioned whether under Baker’s language, sexual misconduct would fall under the types of offenses that could cost an officer his or her license.
“That’s such a common reason for decertification” elsewhere, Goldman said.
Speaking Wednesday, Baker repeatedly emphasized the short clock lawmakers face in putting a certification system into law. Without a formal decision to extend it, the formal legislative session ends on July 31, offering a little more than six weeks for complex legislation, including any sweeping policing reform bill, to pass both chambers.
Both the Senate and House are moving toward a wide-ranging police accountability bill, Holmes said, with the backing of the Senate President Karen E. Spilka and DeLeo.
“They believe we can get this done,” he said. “I would like them to prove it.”
Travis Andersen, Martin Finucane, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.