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EDITORIAL

If police reform is ever going to come, it has to be right here, right now

Massachusetts and the nation’s lawmakers must use this moment to reform policing.

People gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" protest against racism and police brutality on Friday.
People gathered at the Lincoln Memorial during the "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" protest against racism and police brutality on Friday.MICHAEL M. SANTIAGO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Yet another Black man is gunned down by police. The name of Jacob Blake, shot in the back four times (out of seven shots fired) by Kenosha, Wis., police and likely paralyzed for life, gets added to a too-long list of Black men and women — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery — who became victims of those sworn to “protect and serve.”

Closer to home, the newly released video of a Boston man with a long history of mental illness, killed in a hail of police bullets — 31 of them, 26 of which found their mark — tells a horrifying tale of how the “thin blue line” crafts its own narrative. No, Juston Root wasn’t Black, but his death, too, cries out for justice and for reform — for a system where police are held accountable.

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It was just a little over a month ago, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nightly demonstrations that followed here and around the nation and the world, that Massachusetts lawmakers agreed on the outline of a sweeping set of policing reforms.

For the first time, every police officer in the state would be certified and, more important, could be decertified for misconduct by an independent board. Certain police practices, such as choke holds, would be banned, the use of chemical agents like tear gas curtailed, and the use of no-knock warrants restricted. It established a duty to intervene if an officer witnesses misconduct by a fellow officer.

But, as is often the case on Beacon Hill, the Senate and House bills had their differences — differences left to be negotiated by a six-member conference committee (three members from each branch). The House passed its bill July 24; the Senate had approved its version 10 days earlier. The conference committee meets in secret. And while conferees were meeting daily during July, when the Legislature decided to extend its formal sessions beyond the usual July 31 deadline, the pressure for a speedy resolution dissolved.

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Today it is back to business as usual, with little more than vague assurances that “productive conversations” are still taking place within that conference committee, which seems to have gone on hiatus until after the Sept. 1 primary.

But people are still being abused at the hands of police. Anger over injustice is still building in the streets. And any suggestion that lawmakers in Washington will be able to reach agreement on even the most basic reforms is wishful thinking.

No, Massachusetts is on its own. If police reform is ever to come, it will have to be right here — and right now.

Among the reported sticking points is the membership of the commission itself, and whether it should include representatives of communities most affected by racial justice issues, as the Senate bill requires. Clearly it should.

But the most contentious difference between House and Senate bills — and the focus of the most intense lobbying by police unions in the state — is the way each deals with the issue of qualified immunity,which has shielded police from most civil lawsuits over the past three decades. The Senate bill would allow civil rights lawsuits if a police officer had a reasonable expectation that his or her conduct broke the law. The House bill would lift the shield only if an officer had been decertified for misconduct.

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And the longer the legislative negotiations go on, the longer police unions have to marshal their considerable political influence — a strategy the Massachusetts Coalition of Police has readily acknowledged.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Juston Root against the five Boston police officers and one state police trooper involved in his shooting provides fresh evidence — if any were needed — of the need to provide more safeguards for the public.

Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey issued a report last March concluding the officers were justified in their use of deadly force because Root appeared to have a gun. A gun found at the scene turned out to be a BB gun. Even as the gravely injured Root was handcuffed and taking his last breaths, police body cameras record the chaos, then the conclusion: “Yeah, I killed the mother[expletive],” one cop is heard saying. The next words are about closing ranks and calling the union “rep.” The narrative is introduced by one officer that this would be a “suicide by cop.”

It sounds like a bad TV cop show, except it’s all too real. And it explains why police unions are so terrified of reform.

It’s no wonder Black and brown and white citizens together have taken to the streets this summer under the Black Lives Matter banner. Because no one is safe until everyone is safe. Police officers who are not abusive owe it to themselves and the public to stand against policing culture as it has been.

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This moment must not be lost. It’s time to enact real policing reform in Massachusetts, and at least get our own house in order.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.