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As police overhaul bill lingers, unions flex their political muscles

Hamden Police Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth (center), president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and chiefs from across the state spoke out against proposed legislation in Framingham on July 21.
Hamden Police Chief Jeff W. Farnsworth (center), president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and chiefs from across the state spoke out against proposed legislation in Framingham on July 21.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The mandate from community advocates, policy makers, and protesters who took to the streets earlier this summer was clear: It’s time for Massachusetts to pass comprehensive police reforms.

But as a sweeping bill that would do just that lingers on Beacon Hill, the state’s historically powerful police unions are flexing their political clout, launching a forceful lobbying movement that has now made the outcome of the reform effort anything but clear.

Union members — from big cities such as Boston and Worcester, and even those representing the smallest suburbs — have marshaled resources and voiced their opposition to the two versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate. They’ve hosted “Back the Blue” rallies, embarked on social media campaigns, sent mailings, and taken out ads to squash what is in their view an anti-police sentiment taking hold in their communities. One union even took its case to the White House.

“The unions are sticking together, working very hard. And hopefully, we can curb some of this,” Scott Hovsepian, a Waltham officer who’s president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), told President Trump in a White House meeting two weeks ago. He said the unions were urging Governor Charlie Baker to “slow the process down.”

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Community advocates and legislators say they expected opposition — unions have stalled policy changes before. But they also expressed worry that the unions’ political clout will derail efforts to push through long-awaited changes that both residents and police officers should be embracing. One legislator called the letter-writing campaign “bully-ish.”

“Massachusetts lawmakers have the opportunity and responsibility to side with those demanding racial justice and police reform, and to stand against racism and bigotry,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

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Bishop Talbert W. Swan II, head of the NAACP in Springfield, recalls a sense of frustration after hearing high-powered lobbyists deny in a hearing that there’s anything wrong with policing in Massachusetts. This was as the US Department of Justice prepared a scathing report finding corruption and brutality among Springfield police.

“It just seems [unions] are not willing to come to a meeting of minds with the community and those of the Legislature, to a meaningful compromise on police reform,” he said. “It’s glaring, in terms of their disconnect from the community and from reality.”

But many officers see it differently. The Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association recently asked supporters to send a template form to their legislators opposing legislation. “This is a knee jerk reaction to an event that happened across the country,” the letter stated.

The latest calls for an overhaul of police systems were a central theme of the protests across the country and around the world after the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police.

In June, the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus outlined a 10-point plan for reform, including the development of new use-of-force standards and the creation of a standards board that would allow for decertification of police officers for misconduct. Later that month, Governor Charlie Baker proposed a bill based in large part on those recommendations and declared, “Now is the time to get this done.”

The Senate in July passed its own version of the bill, incorporating those overhauls, while seeking to limit qualified immunity for police officers — a legal doctrine that shields police and other public officials from civil lawsuits. A House bill expanded on the proposals, though it scaled back some of the qualified-immunity language.

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A conference committee representing both chambers has been working behind closed doors for about two weeks to complete a plan to send to Baker.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, whose district spans several Boston neighborhoods, said the lobbying effort since June has been “robust.” “I see police stakeholders, both unions and the chiefs, firing on all cylinders,” she said.

But she said much of the debate has centered on squelching misinformation about the legislation, which she said would represent reasonable reform. She rejects the suggestion that Massachusetts police do not have the same systemic issues seen in departments elsewhere in the country.

“This is a long-overdue reckoning,” she said. “It worries me when I hear people describe that this is not a Massachusetts problem, that we’re solving things that don’t happen in Massachusetts, because I think there’s ample evidence to the contrary, and I think not recognizing the problems that do exist is a big part of the problem in the first place.”

Anthony Petrone, a Worcester police sergeant and longtime union official, said this is the first time the state’s scattered unions have been so united.

“As more and more people are finding out what is in this bill and what effect it will have, they’re getting upset,” he said. “I don’t know how they think police officers can do their job effectively under these circumstances.”

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In mailings to legislators and in social media posts, several unions said they are open to reform, but they decried what they called a rushed process. The unions oppose removing qualified immunity protections, saying officers need to be shielded from “frivolous lawsuits” that “could have devastating financial consequences for cities and towns at a time municipal budgets are facing historic crises.”

Several unions endorsed language in the bills that would require police departments to be accredited, and they support new training standards. They were also open to a requirement that police officers be certified, though they had issues with how that would be carried out.

“Sadly, as more than 16,000 officers statewide go to work each day at risk of not returning to their families — there are those on Beacon Hill who wish to punish police officers just for being police officers,” MassCOP, an umbrella union with 4,300 members from 137 municipalities, said in a statement in mid-July. “This is wrong.”

Later in the month, the union issued a separate statement praising the 66 state representatives who had voted against the House bill, saying “it takes a strong sense of right and wrong to resist the pressure some people are putting on these legislators.”

The tension has been so divisive that representatives of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association sought a no-confidence vote in their president, Larry Calderone, last month, alleging he wasn’t strenuous enough in pushing back against critics, according to several people at the meeting.

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Several members, who asked for anonymity to avoid political repercussions within the department, said there are disagreements over whether the vote followed proper governing procedures. But the representatives said the attempted vote by dozens of them exemplified the unrest within the union amid one of its biggest fights on Beacon Hill.

Two weeks after the vote, the union published a full-page advertisement in The Boston Globe urging voters to contact their state representatives and senators and push for thoughtful legislation, saying legislators “are trying to rush a police bill that would harm, not reform, policing.”

“It’s time to stand up for Boston’s finest . . . our officers are some of the best in the world,” the advertisement said. “Given these turbulent times, the last thing Massachusetts needs is hasty overreaction.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.