fb-pixel

Mass. House leaders unveil sweeping police reform bill

Efforts to change policing have spawned rallies across the state, including one in Franklin Park last month.
Efforts to change policing have spawned rallies across the state, including one in Franklin Park last month.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Massachusetts House leaders on Sunday unveiled expansive legislation that would overhaul policing across the state, including by creating a new entity to certify police and stripping officers of certain personal legal protections if they are decertified.

The 129-page bill, released late Sunday night by the House’s budget committee, lays out sweeping changes to how police would be trained and held accountable in Massachusetts, and follows a wide-ranging bill passed last week by the state Senate. Governor Charlie Baker released his own policing proposal in June.

The House legislation surfaced less than two weeks before lawmakers are set to end their formal session. It is a tight time frame for finding agreement on a high-stakes law and comes amid intense pressure to act after weeks of demonstrations spotlighted police brutality following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Advertisement



At its core, the House bill establishes a seven-person Massachusetts Police Standards and Training Commission that would serve as the “primary civil enforcement agency” in the state, according to the bill. The governor and attorney general would make each of the appointments to the new panel, though the bill also reserved seats for preferred picks of law enforcement unions.

The commission would set certification standards for police, be empowered to revoke certifications for “any cause that the commission deems reasonable,” and oversee a separate division that sets training standards for State Police troopers, municipal officers, sheriff deputies, and others.

The bill also delves into the heated debate that has surrounded proposed changes to qualified immunity, which shields individual officers from personal liability for misconduct. The House legislation keeps the state’s qualified immunity law largely intact, but makes an addition: An officer would not have immunity to civil liability for “any conduct under color of law that violates a person’s right to bias-free professional policing” if it results in his or her decertification.

Advertisement



The bill also bans the use of chokeholds, and would limit the use of facial recognition technology and biometric surveillance by public agencies, except the Registry of Motor Vehicles. It would, however, allow law enforcement to have the Registry conduct a facial recognition search in its database with a warrant, according to a summary of the bill released by House leaders.

And for the first time, candidates from outside the State Police would be allowed to be appointed colonel, according to legislative leaders, pushing a change Baker had proposed in January.

The House is expected to vote on the bill Thursday.

In a statement, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said the new commission would be “truly independent and empowered,” and makes good on House leaders’ promise “to address structural inequalities that contribute to and are also a result of racial inequities.”

The legislation also drew support from the chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, whose members have pressed for years to create a certification system for police, among other changes.

Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that does not have a certification or licensing process for police, and the concept of a system has been proposed by both the Senate and Baker.

“The Caucus demanded police accountability and transparency, and this bill addresses each of our initial core demands,” said state Representative Carlos González, the caucus’s chairman, in a statement.

Advertisement



The state Senate on Tuesday passed its own sweeping 89-page bill that would ban chokeholds, create a panel to certify and decertify officers, and, most controversially, scale back the use of so-called “qualified immunity,” 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 Senate’s change would allow victims of police misconduct to more freely pursue civil rights lawsuits.

Scores of police departments, individual officers, and unions have lobbied against the charge, warning it could drive officers from the profession and potentially leave them open to spurious litigation. But the Senate language also set off alarms with a range of public unions, whose leaders charge that the Senate provision 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; the Barnstable County Fire Chiefs’ Association; and AFSCME Council 93 — part of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees — were among several labor groups that filed written testimony with House leaders, slamming the change as a dangerous overreach.

Advertisement



The issue has galvanized public activism, with civil liberty groups, religious leaders, and private citizens rallying at Beacon Hill in recent weeks. On Monday, pastors from 12 African Methodist Episcopal churches from across the state plan to call for lawmakers to “pass strong police reform” outside the State House’s front steps, the same place where a pro-police rally sprang up Thursday.


The House legislation also bars schools from sharing with law enforcement “any information from its databases or other record-keeping systems including,” a student’s immigration status, ethnicity, or suspected gang affiliation — unless it is “germane to a specific unlawful incident or to a specific prospect of unlawful activity the school is otherwise required to report.”

State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chairman, cited the demonstrations across the state, saying in a statement that “those voices demanded we as a Legislature change how we think about public safety and that we address the causes of systemic racism.”

“With this legislation, we will begin the task of making our public safety more equitable for the entire Commonwealth,” the North End Democrat said.

The legislation lands at a fast-moving time on Beacon Hill. Absent a decision to extend their legislative session, lawmakers have until July 31 to pass most substantive proposals. It’s a 12-day stretch that could also include debate on wide-ranging economic legislation and potential bills addressing health care, climate change, and other priorities.

Advertisement



The Legislature has also yet to pass an annual budget for the current fiscal year, one of its primary constitutional responsibilities.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout