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OPINION

Will Beacon Hill side with the people or the police unions?

Deliberations are taking place in secret. Open, honest debate doesn’t happen anymore on Beacon Hill. Democrats have decided to give up the public discourse part of the job description.

A "closed" sign by the public entrance to the Massachusetts State House in March, following COVID-19 restrictions.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Police accountability is a matter of great public interest. Yet on Beacon Hill, deliberations on how to make that happen are taking place in secret. Why?

If they weren’t secret, everyone would understand exactly who is blocking police reform and why. But instead of open debate, a small legislative conference committee is working out differences they are not allowed to talk about. Meanwhile, no need for the rest of us to fret about this conspiracy of silence. After all, as one Democrat familiar with the closed-door deliberations about police reform told the Globe’s Milton Valencia, “It’s just decisions about value choices.”

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Any bets on whose values will win out? The values of the people — including many from communities of color — who are concerned about police accountability and social justice? Or the values of police unions concerned about protecting their members from liability from their on-the-job judgments, some of which have life-and-death consequences?

Doing the public’s business in private has become common practice on Beacon Hill; this year, the coronavirus pandemic, plus the presidential election and its aftermath, are providing even more cover for it. With police reform, secrecy is a special crime perpetrated by lawmakers who are too cowardly to admit whose side they’re really on.

The police reform movement started after protesters took to the streets in May and June, following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. In Massachusetts, Black and brown legislators rallied support, and much lip service was paid to their cause. The House and then the Senate quickly approved their own bills, and Governor Charlie Baker submitted his own proposal. Consensus and, with it, passage of a bill seemed imminent. Yet despite all the promising words, the push for reform is at best stalled, and at worst, going nowhere. The constituency that demanded it has been dismissed, if not forgotten — conveniently, after Election Day.

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Yet the need for reform hasn’t gone away. As the Globe has been reporting, there has long been a different standard of justice for State Police troopers as well as for police officers in local municipalities, including Boston. Changes in training and use-of-force protocols are needed, and there should be a statewide standard for discipline and certification. Also on the table is the question of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from civil misconduct lawsuits.

Behind the scenes, union leaders have been arguing that the legislation is rushed and doesn’t take into account the snap judgments officers make in life-and-death situations. Of course, there are inherent dangers in policing, as the recent shooting of a state trooper during a traffic stop in Hyannis illustrates.

If lawmakers have concerns about the merits of competing proposals, let’s hear from them. Let’s have a good old-fashioned debate about how to structure a statewide police oversight board, or how far legal protection for police officers should go. And let’s do it on Zoom so the public can hear the pros and cons and know who stands for what in this debate.

Of course, that’s a fantasy scenario; open, honest debate doesn’t happen anymore on Beacon Hill on any issue. Democrats, who overwhelmingly control both legislative bodies, have decided to give up the public discourse part of the job description. As retiring Representative Denise Provost of Somerville told Commonwealth magazine, the State House is “an opaque place.” It’s easy to blame leadership for that approach, and dissent is certainly discouraged, especially by House Speaker Robert DeLeo. But it’s also a way for lawmakers to protect themselves from taking a stand that lets the public know where they stand.

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On police reform, where do they stand? With the people — the activists and communities of color — who are demanding change? Or with the police unions and the status quo? When it’s all over, the answer will be clear, no matter how opaque the process.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her @joan_vennochi.