The battle over Massachusetts’ efforts to reform policing in this state has gone national — and not in a good way.
Even as lawmakers here were getting down to the gritty business of negotiating a final compromise police reform bill, the head of the largest police union in the state was using his moment of Oval Office access to bring the White House into the fray, and tipping his hand to the strategy afoot.
It’s a strategy of delay and denial at a time when the public is demanding real change, and that is what legislators need to keep in mind.
Scott Hovsepian, a Waltham police officer and president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), got to plead his case to President Trump last Friday during a nearly hourlong meeting that Trump held with leaders of the National Association of Police Organizations to thank them for their recent endorsement.
“Mr. President, just, you know, the level of attacks that are going at us, going after our qualified immunity, going after our due process rights, it’s a complete assault on the people who are paid to protect the citizens,” Scott Hovsepian said, according to a transcript of that meeting obtained by State House News Service.
The meeting followed the usual pattern of Trump patting himself on the back for his “unwavering support of our nation’s courageous police officers,” as officers in blue provided window dressing.
“And if we can’t do our job,” Hovsepian continued, “in Massachusetts, they want to file bills that will — we will not be able to put our hands on somebody unless we’re arresting them. So if we’re dealing with disorderly people, intoxicated people, people with mental health issues, trying to get them into an ambulance, get them to a hospital, we could be sued.”
Responding to Hovsepian’s hyperbole (the bill actually just bans chokeholds and requires officers to attempt de-escalation when feasible before using physical force) and ever eager to throw gasoline on the fire, Trump said, “You know, they want to take immunity away from police so that if you do what you have to do, and you do it right, you can get sued. I mean, the whole thing is just crazy.”
When asked by Trump if Governor Charlie Baker was being helpful to their cause, Hovsepian said, “It hasn’t gotten to his desk yet, Mr. President. But we’re hoping that we’ve made some very solid arguments on all these issues where he can slow the process down. That’s the problem.”
Ah, there you have it — the strategy: “Slow the process down.”
Now, it was Baker who filed the first bill to set up an independent board that would be charged with certifying — and decertifying — police throughout the state. Senate and House leaders picked it up from there, with the Senate adding a tough but fair attempt to curb qualified immunity: the doctrine that has for the past 30 years or so shielded police and other public officials from civil lawsuits. The House version of the bill whittles away at that particular reform, permitting suits to go forward only in the event an officer is actually decertified for misconduct.
While there are a number of differences between the bills passed by the two branches, resolving that issue is expected to be the most contentious.
Just to prove they have every intention of flexing every political muscle they have, MassCOP last Thursday endorsed all 66 House members (35 Democrats and 31 Republicans) who voted against the police reform bill. In case anyone’s counting, that means the cops — through those doing their bidding in the House — have the numbers to sustain a gubernatorial veto, should there be one.
And that could bring the issue to the doorstep of the governor, who has a long history of not saying anything about anything controversial until it actually lands in front of him.
All Baker has said about qualified immunity is that he’d like to see the issue tackled “at the federal level,” which gives state legislators — not to mention voters — no guidance at all on what he would do here.
Back in June, the nation watched in horror as George Floyd took his last breaths, his neck under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. People, ordinary people, young and old, Black and white and brown, watched, but they were not silent. What followed were days and nights of protests and of national soul-searching.
Political leaders listened to the voices in the street. But Scott Hovsepian and thousands of his brothers in blue are betting that they won’t listen forever — that time is on their side. All they have to do is delay.
Massachusetts lawmakers must prove them wrong.
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