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Qualified immunity debate continues as state Senate mulls policing bill

Advocates are urging lawmakers to do away with the controversial provision entirely, but the legislature appears unlikely to go that far.

The Rev. Willie Bodrick II, associate pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church, made a statement in front of the State House about the police reform bill being considered by the Senate.
The Rev. Willie Bodrick II, associate pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church, made a statement in front of the State House about the police reform bill being considered by the Senate.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

As the Massachusetts state Senate prepared to vote on a wide-ranging policing bill Monday, an advocate stood in front of the State House and called for legislators to eliminate the legal protection police officers have from civil lawsuits, instead of only curbing it.

Rev. Willie Bodrick II, associate pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, called the bill a “first step” toward the ultimate goal of ending qualified immunity, though he did not believe it goes far enough.

“Each and every person in that State House should say enough is enough. But I recognize that this is a step forward. This is a step toward progress,” Bodrick said.

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Qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that keeps most police officers from being held personally liable for wrongdoing in civil lawsuits, would not end in Massachusetts under the current version of the Senate bill. Instead, a person would be allowed to seek monetary damages from individual officers unless, in the bill’s language, “no reasonable defendant could have had reason to believe that such conduct would violate the law.

After nationwide protests following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and many other police killings in the US, activists and lawmakers have brought qualified immunity standards under review. Colorado did away with it as a defense for police officers facing civil rights suits in state courts. The issue is one of many the Mass. Senate bill addresses, along with creating a statewide board to license police officers, limiting use of force, and making it easier for young criminal offenders to expunge their records.

Governor Charlie Baker has prepared a bill that covers many of the same issues, notably police certification.

Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Ayanna Pressley both encouraged the state Senate to pass a bill that includes new, more limited standards for qualified immunity.

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But changing qualified immunity is a complex issue, said Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. He urged legislators to consider the nuances of how the bill is worded, hold off on changing the law, and instead form a panel of experts who can take the time to study qualified immunity in Massachusetts and determine what changes, if any, would be appropriate.

“Qualified immunity has been argued through the courts for roughly 30 years,” Calderone said. “Even the court system can’t seem to figure out qualified immunity yet. The legislature here in Massachusetts thinks that they can figure it out in 7 to 10 days.”

Calderone also said legislators should consider how changing or ending qualified immunity would affect other government workers who currently have to pass a high bar of misconduct to be held liable for misconduct in court: teachers, inspectors, assessors, and so on.

“We’re worried about the good officers, who are playing by the rules, who are protecting the citizens of the commonwealth,” Calderone said. “That’s why qualified immunity was put in place, to protect people who are doing their jobs.”

The day before Bodrick took to the State House, leaders of two organizations for Black and Latino law enforcement officers stood in the same spot asking the legislature not to change the qualified immunity standard, fearing that doing away with it would open officers up to unnecessary litigation.

Eddy Chrispin, a Boston Police sergeant and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, and David Hernandez, a Boston Police officer and vice chairman of the Latino Law Enforcement Group of Boston, had also asked for the legislature to include law enforcement officers like them in their process, possibly through letting them testify at a public hearing.

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Bodrick said he recognized the bill was a wide-ranging reaction to recent protests that put pressure on politicians, but he said the issues it addresses have been present for decades.

“We have done so little for so long on these particular issues,” Bodrick said. “And so, I’m glad that they actually moved forward to push this conversation. I’m glad that they actually put the bill forward with all the nuances there.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.