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Mass. police chiefs assail ‘rushed’ effort by lawmakers to pass reform bill

Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth of the Hamden Police Department, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association (center), spoke out against the recent police reform bills in Framingham on Tuesday.
Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth of the Hamden Police Department, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association (center), spoke out against the recent police reform bills in Framingham on Tuesday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

FRAMINGHAM - Dozens of Massachusetts police chiefs who lead departments from Cape Cod to the Berkshires on Tuesday denounced what they said was a rushed effort by state lawmakers to ram through police reform measures that could “reduce” officers’ ability to “effectively police and protect our Commonwealth.”

That sentiment was expressed by Hampden police Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, during a press conference in Framingham.

Farnsworth described the police reform measures pending on Beacon Hill as “nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction” to events “happening hundreds of miles away from here, and these bills are not a response to any current situation in Massachusetts.”

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The state, Farnsworth said, boasts some of the “best and most respected” leaders in law enforcement, which the bills coming out of the House and Senate “have failed to recognize.”

Farnsworth was one of nearly 100 chiefs who attended the news conference in the AMC movie theater parking lot Tuesday morning. Dressed in their police uniforms and wearing masks, the chiefs gathered around a banner that read “America Backs the Blue.”

Farnsworth said the chiefs back the formation of a POST system, which stands for Police Officer Standards and Training.

A POST system “would set minimum training standards, regulate training programs and curricula, and set standards for maintenance of police licensure or certification,” says the state’s official website. “Such a system would also require departments to track fired and problematic officers to make sure they are not unknowingly hired when leaving one department for another in the same or a different state.”

By contrast, Farnsworth said, the bills pending in the state House and Senate would “diminish the pool of candidates” who wish to become police officers and cause active officers to hesitate in certain “critical” situations, “jeopardizing their own safety and the safety of residents.”

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Farnsworth said the pending legislation also has the potential to be extremely costly for municipalities. “They have no idea how this is going to pan out,” he said. “This legislation will not make us safer.”

He said lawmakers’ proposed ban on chokeholds is a moot point, since “Massachusetts does not and has not trained in chokeholds. We do not use chokeholds. ... We don’t allow that.”

Massachusetts police departments, Farnsworth said, hold officers to very high standards, and lawmakers should talk with chiefs to get a better understanding of what needs to be done.

“What we’re saying is slow down, let’s figure it out,” said Farnsworth. “Join us in a discussion about it. Don’t rush something through that is only going to harm our communities and then take God only knows how much time and how many legislative sessions to fix.”

Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson had harsh words for the legislation, and described the situation as “ridiculous.”

“It’s like they took a bunch of garbage and threw it in one bill and tried to make some sense of it and seemed to think that that is going to solve every problem in our country, and starting with police officers,” said Frederickson. “We all know what that is — it’s pandering. It’s not right.”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police, also criticized the bills.

“We absolutely embrace reasonable police reform,” said Kyes, who described the new legislation as “totally unreasonable.”

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Natick Police Chief James Hicks is chairman of the Municipal Police Training Committee, which develops training standards for police officers across the state. Under the legislation, the committee would be eliminated and replaced with a new police standards and training commission.

Hicks said he was disappointed and disheartened by the provision.

“No one asked us what we do,” Hicks said. “... Apparently the legislators know better than us,”

The chiefs’ comments came two days before the House is scheduled to vote on its version of the reform bill.

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.

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.

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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.

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 Caucus demanded police accountability and transparency, and this bill addresses each of our initial core demands,” said state Representative Carlos González, chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, in a recent statement.

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The state Senate recently 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 a 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.”

Matt Stout of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.