It is a time of reckoning for policing — a time when ordinary citizens know that something has gone wrong and needs to be righted.
When Massachusetts House and Senate conferees sit down to work out the differences between their respective police reform bills, that is the big-picture task they need to keep in mind.
A decade from now, no one will care if the independent body assigned the difficult job of certifying, training, and disciplining police officers is called the Massachusetts Police Standards and Training Commission (as it is in the House version introduced earlier this week) or the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (as in the recently passed Senate version) or whether it has seven members (House bill) or 14 (Senate bill).
They will care only that the officers it certifies are good and decent people, that those who don’t meet that standard are quickly dispatched from the ranks, and that a measure of trust has been restored between citizens and the officers who take an oath to serve and protect.
The real legacy of George Floyd, who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and Breonna Taylor, who died at the hands of Louisville, Ky., police executing a no-knock warrant at the wrong address, will be how police practice will change on the streets of Boston and Springfield and the hundreds of small towns here and elsewhere well into the future.
Differences that loom large within the Beacon Hill bubble must not stand in the way of passing a trailblazing piece of legislation. And those who criticize the Legislature’s “haste” — like a number of members of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association — and urge a slower approach are clearly tone-deaf to the clamor for long-overdue reform.
Barring some last-minute snag or unexpected amendment, the House is expected to pass its version of the reform legislation Thursday. There is much common ground between the two bills. Both ban choke holds, use of most chemical agents like tear gas, restrict the use of no-knock warrants, and establish a duty to intervene in the event one officer witnesses misconduct by another. Both aim to keep bad cops from being able to move from one department to another, and set up public registries of those against whom complaints have been sustained. Lamentably, both fall short of setting up a database that would include all complaints lodged against officers.
As drafted, the House wins points on one major transparency issue, specifically, removing the “personnel/medical” exemption from the public records law for law enforcement personnel. That exemption has allowed police departments to shield documents involving misconduct investigations.
Both House and Senate bills would make much-needed changes in State Police governance, allowing the governor to appoint a head of the agency from outside its ranks.
How to overhaul the contentious issue of qualified immunity, a doctrine that has too often shielded police from civil lawsuits even in the wake of egregious conduct, has also divided lawmakers. The bill passed by the Senate would severely limit its use; as originally proposed, the House bill would lift the shield only if an officer had been decertified by the commission for misconduct. The Senate’s language could apply not just to police officers but also to other public employees. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: The Legislature should at least discuss whether qualified immunity should also be rolled back for firefighters, teachers, or other government workers who abuse their authority.
The House’s proposal also spelled out a new and expanded role for the attorney general in the investigation of deadly-force cases, allowing the AG to determine if a particular case should be handled by the local district attorney or by a division headed by an assistant attorney general. Given the potential for conflicts of interest at the local level — where DAs often work closely with the local police — that seems a worthwhile improvement.
The bill that will eventually emerge from the conference committee can, in fact, be a beginning, not an end, to reform. Often on Beacon Hill, study commissions are where good ideas go to die. But the 25-member commission proposed by the House to study civil service, the impact of collective bargaining agreements, and hiring practices of the State Police has real potential — and a real deadline. Its recommendations are due by the end of this year.
For decades, lawmakers have been in thrall to police — both their local forces and the State Police. Any bill affecting uniformed officers would bring a sea of blue to the halls of the State House — a show of power and solidarity. The pandemic has curtailed that musty tradition, but it hasn’t halted vocal criticism from police unions and from the chiefs.
But times change and power shifts. The voices in the street calling for justice, for police who can be trusted and respected, are being heard this time.
Many of the differences between the House and Senate are in the greater scheme of things at the margins. A few are not. But failure — and not passing a meaningful reform bill would indeed be a failure of monumental proportions — is not an option.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.