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Mass. House passes policing bill, paving way for high-stakes talks with Senate

Although House Democrats regularly follow the lead of Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his leadership, this time the vote was relatively close.
Although House Democrats regularly follow the lead of Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his leadership, this time the vote was relatively close.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts House voted Friday to approve a wide-ranging police accountability bill, setting up high-stakes negotiations with the Senate that could reshape law enforcement in the state for years to come.

Representatives passed the bill, 93-66, following three days of debate that often stretched late into the night and spanned 11 hours on Friday alone. For the House, where Democrats regularly follow the lead of Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and his leadership team on major legislation, the 27-vote difference was relatively close, underlining the thorny deliberations that have enveloped the legislation.

The bill seeks to overhaul how police would be trained and held accountable, including with the creation of a new certification system, under which officers could be stripped of their licenses for certain misconduct. It also would ban choke holds, and set new limits on so-called no-knock warrants.

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“Change is never easy, but with this vote, the House of Representatives acts to ensure fairness and equality,” DeLeo said in a statement late Friday night.

The legislation has for weeks been at the center of an intensifying debate between police unions, who have derided it as a “knee-jerk reaction,” and civil liberty and criminal justice advocates, who have called for tighter controls on police conduct after weeks of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

“What side of racial justice will you be on?” Representative Carlos González, chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, asked from the House floor Friday night. “The moment is now, to begin to change an institution that for too long has been plagued with imperfection, and begin to heal the scars, which too often have only received a Band-Aid approach.”

The House legislation, first introduced Sunday, diverges in several areas from a similarly sweeping proposal passed last week by the Senate, meaning leaders from both chambers will have to huddle, likely in closed-door talks, to reconcile differences in the two complex bills.

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Among them are vastly different proposals to change state law around qualified immunity, which shields individual officers from personal liability for misconduct and has become a point of contention between the chambers.

Lawmakers also face a tight clock. Absent a decision to extend the legislative session, lawmakers have until July 31 to pass a raft of substantive bills and send them to Governor Charlie Baker. Legislative leaders have privately discussed the possibility of suspending their rules to allow for more formal law-making, but they face a mountain of other unfinished work, too, including their constitutional responsibility to pass an annual state budget.

Like the Senate bill, the House is proposed to create a new process for licensing police, as well as a commission to investigate misconduct and, if necessary, strip officers of their certification. The proposed systems, however, are littered with differences, including how a new oversight commission would be structured.

Amid its debate, the House also adopted an amendment setting a new legal bar for what could prompt an investigation by a newly formed Police Standards and Training Commission. Originally, the bill directed that commission to launch an inquiry into an officer “upon receipt of report, or other evidence . . . deemed sufficient by the commission” about several types of misconduct.

On Thursday, the House passed new language, allowing the commission to open a preliminary review if it finds “by a preponderance of evidence” that an officer may have engaged in misconduct, or in other words, it’s more likely than not.

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Representative Michael S. Day, the vice chairman of the judiciary committee, described the standard as the “gatekeeper” for launching investigations within the new commission. “This amendment ensures due process while holding them accountable,” the Stoneham Democrat said Thursday from the House floor.

But civil liberty advocates say they were alarmed by the change, arguing it sets a far higher standard for investigating an officer than police themselves have to meet when investigating crimes.

It also differs widely from the Senate language, which gives the commission the power to receive complaints of misconduct “from any person” before conducting “independent investigations and adjudications.”

“It has the potential to be incredibly and unfairly tilted in the officer’s favor — and against the person alleging they were the victim of misconduct and brutality,” Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said of the House language.

In a widely debated section, the Senate proposal also sought to scale back the use of so-called qualified immunity, by allowing civil rights lawsuits under state law if the officer should have reasonably known their conduct broke the law.

But according to several public unions, the proposal was broadly worded, applying the changes to all public employees. The House took a more narrow path, tying qualified immunity, in part, to the new licensing process, stripping officers of personal legal protections in cases where their conduct results in decertification.

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The House legislation would also give Attorney General Maura Healey’s office a direct role in investigating deadly force cases involving police, an authority that under state law is currently reserved for local district attorneys.

The House debated hundreds of amendments over three days, a halting process slowed, in part, because many representatives were deliberating remotely under emergency rules the House passed in response to the pandemic.

It included narrowly passing an amendment, 83-76, that adds limitations on no-knock warrants, including allowing them only if an officer “has no reason to believe” that minor children or elderly adults are in the home. Representative Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat, cited the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Aiyana Stanley-Jones in pushing the amendment on the House floor, calling it “one more step toward justice.

But lawmakers rejected several proposed changes, including a measure that would have installed an outright ban on tear gas (The bill limits its use only if deescalation tactics aren’t “feasible.”)

Some House Republicans argued the bill was rushed and the new system lacked enough representation from law enforcement. Representative Timothy R. Whelan, a Brewster Republican and former State Police sergeant, lamented that the bill already had many “holes” before debate began.

“We have installed more than we fixed,” Whelan said. “It’s anti-labor.”


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