As state representatives passed a wide-ranging police accountability bill in late July, they framed the legislation in urgent terms, citing the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer and the worldwide protests for racial justice that followed.
“The moment,” Representative Carlos González told lawmakers late that night, “is now.”
More than a month later, that moment has yet to materialize. A final version of the closely watched legislation — passed by the House 33 days ago and in the Senate, 10 days before that — remains bottled up within closed-door negotiations. Legislative leaders, citing a self-imposed tradition of secrecy, are giving little insight into why it hasn’t moved amid Beacon Hill’s traditional summer doldrums.
Now, with deadly unrest resurfacing after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis., the Democratic-led Legislature is facing renewed pressure, quite literally, at its front door.
“I’m tired of it,” said Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat and the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus’s former chairman, who publicly pushed to finalize a bill by the end of July before lawmakers took regularly scheduled vacations or pivoted to reelection fights.
“I had pushed the speaker and the Senate president, the governor to get something done . . . and now it’s going to be September” until we likely see a bill, Holmes said. “I want something delivered now. Right now.”
Facing a swath of unfinished work and a deadline to finish formal lawmaking at the end of July, lawmakers took the unprecedented step of suspending their own rules and allowing substantive bills to flow through the branches into January.
But in buying themselves more time, they did not undo the legislative lull that typically descends on Beacon Hill in August. Neither chamber has held a formal session this month, none of the five major pieces of legislation locked in conference committees has emerged, and many lawmakers have spent time scattered on family vacations or, for those facing Sept. 1 primary challenges, the campaign trail.
The half-dozen lawmakers negotiating the policing bill — González, Claire D. Cronin, Timothy R. Whelan from the House and William N. Brownsberger, Sonia Chang-Díaz, Bruce E. Tarr from the Senate — were initially meeting daily “up until a few weeks ago,” said Holmes, who speaks weekly with other members of the Black and Latino Caucus, which includes González and Chang-Díaz.
The six lawmakers, none of whom face a challenge on Sept. 1, either did not return requests for comment or declined interviews, citing a long-held tradition on Beacon Hill of not publicly discussing negotiations, or when they happen, after the committee votes to close its meetings to the public.
Brownsberger and Cronin, both Democrats, said in a joint statement that lawmakers are working “diligently and engaging in productive conversations.” Whelan, a Brewster Republican, said in a text message to a Globe reporter that the group is “trying to reach a consensus.”
Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo did not respond to interview requests Wednesday. DeLeo said last month the conference committee would “take the time to get it right.”
Advocates, some of whom say the legislation already lacked the teeth they’ve demanded, say it’s not coming fast enough.
“We’re one situation away from a Ferguson happening here. Are we going to wait until that happens or are we going to ensure that it doesn’t happen?” said Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, which led thousands in protest of racism and police violence in June.
“How many Black men have we heard saying I can’t breathe since Eric Garner? How many Black men have been shot in the back since Stephon Clark? How many Black women have been killed doing nothing?” she asked. “I don’t think [Massachusetts] legislators are working with activists in a way to actually get things done.”
While the bill has languished, the state’s police unions have launched a forceful lobbying movement, marshaling resources, and voicing their opposition to both the House and Senate versions of the bill. The president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police appeared at the White House at the end of July, telling President Trump in a White House meeting that the unions were urging Governor Charlie Baker to “slow the process down.”
On Wednesday, the State Police Association of Massachusetts, one of the most powerful labor unions in the state, representing more than 2,000 troopers and sergeants, said it agrees with some aspects of the legislation, including standardizing training and a new certification system for police.
But, like other unions, it chafed at proposals to scale back legal protections for officers under so-called qualified immunity laws, saying that could also affect “firefighters, teachers, EMTs and other municipal employees.” (It was apparently referencing Senate language that labor groups say would apply to all public employees.)
A spokeswoman for Baker, who filed his own policing bill in June alongside the Black and Latino Caucus, said Wednesday the Republican governor was “committed to enhancing and improving public safety and looks forward to working with the Legislature on this issue.”
Opponents to the proposals have “bombarded” the Legislature and stymied the legislative progress, said James Mackey, manager of Brothers Building, an organization for Black men in Boston. The group, with the Boston branch of the NAACP, the ACLU of Massachusetts, and others, has organized a news conference outside the State House on Friday to urge lawmakers “to pass strong police reform” and bring attention to racial injustice.
The opposition has “been able to come up with a powerful strategy to water down the ‘progressive’ — and that’s in quotes — legislation,” said Mackey, a self-described revolutionist who said he wants to not only organize his community but bring about revolutionary change.
The legislation passed by the Senate and the House had similar goals, including, for the first time, licensing police officers, who could then lose their certification for certain misconduct. But they proposed disparate procedures for investigating officers and different structures for a new committee to oversee the effort.
Both also sought to change state law around qualified immunity, a hotly debated legal doctrine that shields individual officers from personal liability for misconduct. The Senate proposed scaling back its use by allowing civil rights lawsuits under state law if the officer should have reasonably known his or her conduct broke the law.
The House, meanwhile, took a more narrow path, tying qualified immunity, in part, to the new licensing process, where officers would lose the personal legal protection in cases where their conduct results in decertification.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version, 30-7, on July 14. In the House, where major legislation often passes with veto-proof margins, the police bill divided sections of the 127-member Democratic caucus, ultimately clearing the chamber, 93-66, on July 24.
“In Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to reign in excessive use of force and hold police who go too far accountable,” Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, wrote Wednesday on Twitter, citing the shooting of Blake. “Let’s get police reform legislation — with strong qualified immunity reform provisions intact — to the Governor’s desk.”
In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he’s expecting a city task force to announce police reform recommendations in coming weeks.
“What I witnessed on TV was an atrocity, what happened,” Walsh said of the police shooting in Kenosha. He said the city has already reevaluated training of Boston police in recent months, something he expected would continue. “We’re going to continue to make changes,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.
“As far as the legislation up at the State House,” he said, “I’m not sure what the holdup is.”
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.