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Sweeping police reform bill that passed state Senate draws swift condemnation from police unions

Senate President Karen E. Spilka spoke on the steps of the Massachusetts State House.
Senate President Karen E. Spilka spoke on the steps of the Massachusetts State House.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

In a session that stretched to nearly 5 a.m. Tuesday, the state Senate passed a wide-ranging policing bill that would ban chokeholds, create a panel to certify and decertify officers, and clarify a legal doctrine some see as a barrier to change: qualified immunity for individual officers.

But the bill, approved following weeks of protests sparked by the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer, drew swift condemnation from police unions, both for its content and the circumstances of its passage. The bill now goes to the House Committee on Ways and Means; a final vote has not been scheduled.

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Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement that she was “proud of the Senate for listening to calls for racial justice and beginning the difficult work of reducing institutionalized violence, shifting our focus and resources to communities that have historically been negatively impacted by aggressive policing . . .‘‘

The bill would create a Police Officers Standards and Accreditation Committee. Long sought by advocates and lawmakers and common in other states, the independent panel would be made up of police, community members, a retired judge, and social justice advocates to oversee certification, training, and decertification of police.

The Senate bill also clarifies the state’s qualified immunity law, which shields individual officers from personal liability for misconduct. Police officers and public officials would still be protected from being held personally liable, so long as they are “acting in accordance with the law.”

What that change would mean in court is not yet clear, but police unions fear it could open the door to more lawsuits against officers.

“The bill also makes clear that nothing in this bill impacts or limits existing indemnification protections for public officials,” Spilka’s office said in a statement.

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Police unions, along with Latino and Black police officer groups, had pressed the Legislature to avoid a full-scale revocation of the law while some social justice advocates contended it is a critical barrier to change.

But even the clarification went too far, said Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.

“It will change the way lawsuits are filed in Massachusetts,” he said, potentially making officers personally liable for actions they take on the job. Civil rights lawsuits against officers, he said, would be able to go to state courts, rather than federal ones.

“It will definitely flood the courts and have the courts now create new standards and new topics of debate that will go on, I can only imagine, for another three decades,” he said.

Calderone told reporters Tuesday there were many aspects of the bill he thought were positive: creating a police standards board; banning chokeholds; prohibiting officers from shooting into moving vehicles, except in very limited circumstances; creating uniform standards for training officers across the state. Some of those policies came from “constructive and diplomatic dialogue” with Representative Carlos Gonzalez, the Springfield Democrat who leads the Black and Latino Caucus, Calderone said.

But the same conversations were not held with the Senate, where Calderone said “certain members are unwilling to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue.”

Reform advocates, meanwhile, said the proposed overhaul to police procedures did not go far enough.

Daunasia Yancey, an activist and organizer who founded Black Lives Matter Boston, pointed to places that are cutting funding of their police departments and redistributing the money to services and organizations that can support communities.

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That, she said, would be an example of meaningful change.

“This bill seems weak to me, and the piece around qualified immunity – there’s no change there,” Yancey said. “We have to keep pushing, and we can do better than this.”

“While many of the reforms in this bill are laudable and crucial, more must be done to fundamentally change the role of police in our society,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, noting that her organization would like to see qualified immunity eliminated. “It’s time for systemic change and an end to policing as usual. In particular, in order to make any laws about excessive use of force meaningful, it is absolutely essential to reform qualified immunity.”

Shayla Mombeleur, one of four public defenders who organized a June rally in Nubian Square, said the bill was a step in the right direction.

“I think it also shows the impact protesters have had, by working together and standing together as Black, Brown and White people, united for one cause,” Mombeleur said in an e-mail. “Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Have Value — I think people need to continue to voice that truth until it is reflected within the law — on the books and in action.”

Boston Police Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, questioned the idea that legislators can, by themselves and in the course of a only few weeks, make meaningful, institutional changes in how officers interact with members of the public.

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“If we’re really talking about issues of systemic racism, how police officers interact with Black and brown communities, this bill doesn’t do it,” Chrispin said. “And for anybody to think that this is going to address the issues that have existed in policing in a way that some of us engage Black and brown communities, this is far, far, far from it. You can’t fix something like that with a 70-page bill that’s rushed. Absolutely impossible.”

Other police unions reacted viscerally to the prospect of changing qualified immunity standards: Last week the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association encouraged members and supporters in a Facebook post to e-mail their senators in opposition of the bill and used an especially violent week around the Fourth of July in Boston to make their point.

“If you think 7 civilians killed in 7 days in Boston is bad, just wait for the purge that will come,” the post read.

Union officials later edited the sentence out of the post and followed with a long statement saying the reference to a purge was “not a statement calling for violence but a statement of fear for our communities and what they could face as we become understaffed and under equipped as we remain overtasked.”

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who helped lead a working group on racial justice, said in a statement that the measure marks a historic change for Massachusetts’ communities of color.

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“This bill is a vital step towards a new vision of public safety: one that’s built on accountability, de-escalation, and care,” said the Jamaica Plain Democrat. “It begins the long, necessary work of shifting power and resources to Black communities and communities of color who have, for too long, faced criminalization and punishment instead of investment.”

Republican Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation to create a system for licensing police officers and stripping them of their certification for misconduct. Democratic House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is committed to passing a bill, but DeLeo said Monday it won’t come before the House holds a public hearing, perhaps as early as this week.

In response to the overtime fraud scandal that enveloped the Massachusetts State Police, the measure would also repeal a law that requires the department’s colonel be drawn from within the department and instead open selection to outside candidates.

A State Police cadet program would also be created as a means of increasing minority representation in the ranks of the statewide agency, which patrols highways, conducts major criminal investigations, and responds to public safety issues on state property.

Globe correspondent Jeremy Fox contributed to this report.



John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.