The leaders of two organizations for Black and Latino police officers spoke out Sunday against proposed legislation that would limit qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
The sweeping law enforcement bill, now in the state Senate, is overall “fairly good,” said Eddy Chrispin, a Boston police sergeant and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. But at a press conference on the State House steps late Sunday, Chrispin said he worried about limiting qualified immunity.
The bill would also put in place a licensing board to certify law enforcement officers — and, Chrispin said, it would potentially limit officers’ ability to appeal license revocations.
“In these times it is important that we create impactful, meaningful change, not change for the sake of change,” Chrispin said. “We are poised and ready to be a part of the change. That change will have to get to the core of the problem, systemic racism. Let’s not hyper-focus on policing and miss the mark.”
Qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that bars government officials, including police officers, from being held personally responsible for monetary damages in civil lawsuits, has been thrust into public focus during the conversations about race and policing following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and others.
The bill before the state Senate would not end qualified immunity, but it could curtail its use. An officer would have immunity from a civil lawsuit only if “no reasonable defendant could have had reason to believe that such conduct would violate the law.”
David Hernandez, a Boston police officer and vice chairman of the Latino Law Enforcement Group of Boston, said he would like law enforcement officers to have a seat at the legislative table.
“We can agree that change needs to happen. However, we as police officers need to be part of this change in order to have a holistic view that will only help our community,” Hernandez said. “ . . . We are men and women that have prepared ourselves academically to do our job. We have studied theories such as broken windows, labeling, and rational choice, just to name some. Now we can also agree that the system has been broken since its inception. It took over 300 years to get to where we are today. This is not a system that can be fixed in a short period of time.”
Chrispin also said that instituting harsher discipline for police officers could affect nonwhite officers more harshly.
“I think historically, the numbers will prove that we have faced disparate treatment at the hands of different police departments, not just in Boston, but throughout the state,” Chrispin said. “The real concern in this movement is not just in policing. It’s about systemic racism. Policing is a small part of it. Let’s focus on the bigger issues, rather than just for the bill for the purpose of saying, hey, we did something.”
The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, a longtime community activist from the Ella J. Baker House and the Asuza Christian Community, said he would like to see legislators take their time with the bill.
“In the wake of an enormous wave of protests, we in Massachusetts have an important opportunity to put in place legislation that will hold officers to high standards,” he said. “However, the current version of the bill in the Senate puts that at risk,” Rivers said.
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