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Behind closed doors at State House, police reform stuck in neutral

Social justice advocates had a rally in front of the State House on Thursday, Sponsored by "Justice Can't Wait Super Coalition."
Social justice advocates had a rally in front of the State House on Thursday, Sponsored by "Justice Can't Wait Super Coalition."Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In June, amid protests across the nation, Governor Charlie Baker joined legislators and advocates and declared “now is the time” to pass law enforcement reforms and usher in a new era of policing in Massachusetts.

The state’s Senate and House quickly approved their own sweeping reform bills and vowed to agree on a final legislative package. Despite strong pushback from many police unions, its passage seemed like a foregone conclusion in the reliably liberal State House.

But nearly six months later, even with an extended legislative session, the police reforms have lost all political momentum, taken a back seat to other matters, and some say it may not happen this year, if at all.

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Several people close to the secret deliberations say lawmakers have struggled to hammer out small differences, many of which have more to do with politics than the nuances of policing.

Lawmakers have specifically been hung up on how to structure a statewide police oversight and certification board, as well as on legal protections for police officers in civil lawsuits, according to several people close to the discussions. Another consideration? The criticism from police unions that the legislation has been rushed and does not account for the sometimes precarious situations officers contend with on the job.

State Representative Claire D. Cronin of Easton,one of the legislators leading the small conference committee working to hammer out a solution, said in a statement only that “we are continuing to work diligently in the hopes of reaching an agreement.” Other members declined comment.

But several lawmakers say the issue has caused a divide within the state’s majority party, with some Democrats looking for modest changes while more progressive leaders are pushing meatier reforms.

“It’s just decisions about value choices,” said one Democrat familiar with the closed-door legislative process but not authorized to speak on the secret deliberations. “There’s a reckoning that has to happen in the Democratic Party … and that hasn’t happened yet.”

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Baker, a Republican who has been increasingly open to police reform in recent years, has been among the fiercest critics of the process. He has repeatedly noted that he submitted proposals 10 months ago that would allow for the decertification of troubled State Police troopers. So far, those proposals have sat idle.

“The administration cannot understand why [proposed legislation] has not advanced through the Legislature,” the governor said through a spokeswoman, Sarah Finlaw.

State Representative Russell Holmes, a Democrat from Mattapan and one of the original backers of criminal justice changes in Massachusetts, also expressed frustration. He said Black and brown legislators submitted a reasonable proposal in June, but continued infighting among legislators has made its passage more complicated and politicized. Meanwhile, he lamented, legislators have turned their attention to other matters.

“Do what Black people say is most important — criminal justice reform, police reform,” he said. “Let’s make sure we get it done, now.”

The recent elections seemed to have had little influence on the proposed legislation. Though dozens of Republican candidates signed a “Back the Blue” pledge, vowing to oppose police reforms, few of them won their races. And dozens of Democrats who voted against police reform nonetheless cruised to reelection.

Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said that the lack of any political consequences means the status quo remains.

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“I don’t know if there’s going to be a significant push for moving it forward, or a political price to pay for not having done so,” he said.

“There are enough activists on all sides of the issue to keep the conversation going,” he added. "But the question is — can it translate in a post-election environment to passage? That is still unclear to me.”

The political will seems far less urgent than when protestors took to the streets in May and June, demanding police reforms in a historic social justice reckoning over systemic police abuses. The police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, galvanized the movement.

Baker unveiled his own police reform bill in June with widespread support. The state’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus also unveiled a 10-Point Plan for reform. Later in the summer, the Senate passed its version by a 30-7 vote, largely splitting along party lines. The House version passed by an unusually close 93-66 vote, with dozens of Democrats bucking the leadership and siding with police unions.

Though the competing legislative packages have similar proposals on training and use-of-force restrictions, they include several differences. The Senate version, for instance, has stronger language limiting qualified immunity, the legal doctrine protecting police officers from civil misconduct lawsuits.

Each of the versions also has different blueprints for police certification and monitoring systems, including a review board that could strip officers of their licenses for certain misconduct. Unions have argued that board members should have some experience in law enforcement, while other versions would exclude experience as a qualification.

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The House version also raised the legal bar for when the state board would have the authority to investigate misconduct allegations. That difference alarmed civil liberty advocates, who argued that it sets a higher standard for investigating an officer’s conduct than police themselves have to meet when investigating crimes.

Carol Rose, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said lawmakers must act without delay.

“Our elected leaders should seize upon this historic moment to show that they are listening to the voters, and to demonstrate that Black and brown lives matter in Massachusetts by passing strong police reform legislation as quickly as possible,” she said.

Police unions, though, have called on legislators to pause on reforms, even if that means they postpone a decision until next year. The largest unions, representing thousands of police officers across the state from Boston to Worcester to Springfield, have a substantial lobbying presence on Beacon Hill.

“The process was flawed from the beginning,” said Scott A. Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, the largest union in the state.

Many unions said they would be open to reforms, such as changes to training and use of force protocols, even the idea of a certification system. But they also argued that the reforms have been rushed in response to the protests. They say the Legislature’s failure to reach a compromise over the last several months shows that the matter is far more complicated.

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“Let’s use the platforms we have and know of and let’s go forward in a new legislative session, and work out what we can, because there are things we can totally agree with,” said Anthony Petrone, a Worcester police sergeant and a leading member of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ local.

In recent weeks, the Legislature has been preoccupied by deliberations for the constitutionally required approval of a budget, an especially fraught process in an uncertain financial year. Lawmakers also are moving to enact new protections for abortion rights, as part of the budget process. Those deliberations have been made more complicated by a COVID-19 outbreak at the State House.

If criminal justice reform is not passed by January, police unions could indeed be back at the table with legislators, advocates, and the Baker administration. And the process would have to start all over.


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