Massachusetts state senators faced criticism within their own chamber that the passage of a fast-moving policing bill lacked enough input from outside their walls. Their House counterparts may have the opposite challenge.
House leaders’ decision to open a 40-hour window for written testimony drew thousands of e-mails and letters, adding to the mountain of debate around Beacon Hill’s truncated efforts to tighten police accountability statewide.
The House budget committee uploaded 418 letters Friday from a hodgepodge of unions, police departments, and advocacy groups, some with no apparent connection to law enforcement. Ten massive PDF’s of e-mails followed, each numbering roughly 300 pages and collectively holding more than 2,900 subject lines.
“Hopefully someone will actually read this,” wrote one man, who identified himself as a retired law enforcement officer.
Many were from private citizens. Some were sent by state senators, urging caution on language they approved just days earlier. And the testimony was organized in no discernible order, with files identified not by name but numbers.
For example, Testimony #110 came from Boston Prep, a charter school where its executive director asked lawmakers to limit the presence of police in school.
Testimony letters #111 and #112 were sent by groups urging the House to adopt language, as the Senate did, to ban governmental use of facial surveillance technology.
And Testimony #113 is authored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who just a few months ago was running for president.
“The bill contains many much-needed reforms that will bring meaningful change to policing in Massachusetts,” the Cambridge Democrat wrote.
The flood of testimony came after the Senate — which generally skews to the left of a centrist-led House — passed its version of a policing bill over a marathon 17-hour session. The wide-ranging bill would ban chokeholds, create a panel to certify and de-certify officers, and, most controversially, scale back the use of so-called “qualified immunity” under state law, a legal doctrine that often shields individual officers from legal claims of brutality or other misconduct.
The concept has become one of, if not the primary, flash point in the debate. The Senate’s language would ensure that 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 at the time the conduct occurred.”
State lawmakers can’t directly change how the doctrine is applied at the federal level, but they can curtail its application under state law, and supporters say the change will allow victims of police misconduct to more freely pursue civil rights lawsuits.
But scores of police departments, individual officers, and unions have written to House leaders, urging them to strip the section, warning it could drive officers from the profession and leave them open to spurious litigation.
It took on an immense focus in testimony. In one batch of 300 pages of e-mails released by the House committee, the phrase “qualified immunity” appears 657 times. In another, spanning 305 pages, it appears 721 times.
But the bill’s language has set off alarms not just with police labor leaders but with a variety of public unions who charge that the provision as written would apply the new standards not just to police officers but to all public employees.
The Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents MBTA workers, wrote in opposition, as did the Barnstable County Fire Chiefs’ Association. AFSCME Council 93 called it a “drastic and dangerous overreach.”
“While we fully support changes to improve policing procedures and combat discrimination in the Commonwealth, we have serious concerns with the changes included in this bill that open the door to onerous risks to and burdens upon public employees performing their duties in good faith,” wrote the president of Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists, which represents 3,400 employees across the state.
State Representative James K. Hawkins, an Attleboro Democrat, submitted an e-mail saying he wouldn’t support the language, arguing that lawyers at the Massachusetts Municipal Association have also warned it can have impacts on teachers, nurses, and other employees.
“I know that when I was a teacher, lawsuits were always a threat that we dealt with,” Hawkins wrote. “There are so many unintended consequences.”
He wasn’t the only legislator to express reservations.
State Senator Paul Feeney, a Foxborough Democrat who voted for the policing bill, wrote to House leaders on Friday saying that he “learned throughout the last week the scope and intent of Qualified Immunity, not just as it relates to law enforcement officers, but every other public employee and public official.”
Feeney was among 16 senators who backed a failed amendment to instead study qualified immunity.
The Senate’s proposal has received high-profile backing, too, including support from Representative Ayanna Pressley and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which organized a rally outside the State House on Friday.
The Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund submitted testimony supporting it, and others pushed the House to go further. LaSella L. Hall, the president of the NAACP’s New Bedford Branch, said qualified immunity amounts to a “license to kill.”
“For all its laudable efforts, the Massachusetts Senate bill only limits Qualified Immunity,” Hall wrote with emphasis, “not eliminates it.”
With formal lawmaking slated to end July 31, the House is expected to release its version of policing legislation in the coming days.