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Lawmakers unveil police reform compromise after months of secret negotiations

One legislator, who has been a longtime advocate for more police accountability, hailed the bill as ‘a giant leap forward.’

Protesters linked arms following a rally and vigil for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in Boston in June.
Protesters linked arms following a rally and vigil for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in Boston in June.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Massachusetts legislative leaders said Monday they reached an agreement on “landmark” policing legislation that would create a new system for holding officers accountable, including stripping them of legal protections in some cases of misconduct.

The 129-page compromise bill announced by a committee of House and Senate members capped four months of behind-closed-doors negotiations in which leaders from both chambers worked, they said, to meet the calls of demonstrators who took to the streets this spring and summer pushing for reform.

Ultimately, they agreed to create a Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, a nine-member group that would serve as the state’s primary civil enforcement agency, with the power to certify officers for the first time in state history, oversee investigations into officer misconduct, and rescind an officers’ license.

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The so-called POST commission could strip an officer’s certification if he or she is convicted of a felony, “knowingly” files a police report with false information, or uses deadly excessive force, among other examples of misconduct.

The bill also would ban choke holds, set new limits on so-called no-knock warrants, and codify standards of use of force. Tear gas or rubber bullets could be used only if de-escalation tactics have failed or are not “feasible” and officers are trying to prevent “imminent harm,” according to the bill.

In a statement Monday, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Karen E. Spilka touted the bill as “one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform and racial justice in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd,” a Black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck in May.

“Our approach strikes a balance that will provide greater protections for the rights of all residents,” DeLeo and Spilka said. “While there is still much work to be done, we are proud of the foundation laid by this bill as we continue to build toward racial justice and equity.”

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The agreement is expected to move quickly in the House and Senate, both of which have scheduled formal sessions on Tuesday, when lawmakers could take an up-or-down vote on the package. The House passed its original version of the bill, 93-66 — a relatively slim window in the Democratic-led chamber and one that would fall far short of the margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto. The Senate’s version passed 30-7.

If cleared Tuesday, the bill would then move to Governor Charlie Baker, who filed his own policing legislation in June, but did not include many of the components legislative leaders agreed upon. A spokesman for Baker said Monday that he is “committed to enhancing and improving public safety” and would review the bill.

“This begins to answer the cries after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a host of others for years,” said Representative Carlos González, chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and one of the three House negotiators on the bill.

“I think it’s a responsibility to take the time, as long as it took, to make sure we had real police reform in the state of Massachusetts,” he said. “I think we achieved that. This is landmark legislation that will have rumbling effects across the country.”

The legislation has been at the center of an intense debate among activists, who have for months pushed lawmakers to pass meaningful reforms, and law enforcement unions, which launched a forceful lobbying movement in response to what they viewed as a “knee-jerk reaction.”

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Several of those closely watching the bill, including civil liberty advocates and police union officials, said they were reviewing the lengthy proposal.

Rooted at the center of disagreement were disparate proposals aimed at the state’s qualified immunity law, the legal doctrine protecting police officers from certain civil misconduct lawsuits.

Legislative leaders ultimately adopted House-passed language, 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 agreement also would create a commission to study further changes in the law.

The Senate had proposed scaling back its use further by allowing civil rights lawsuits under state law if the officer should have reasonably known his or her conduct broke the law.

Senator William N. Brownsberger, the chamber’s third-ranked Democrat and its lead negotiator on the bill, said compromises were necessary to produce what he called a “great package.”

“When you ask people to compromise about things that are of a political nature, these are things people tend to feel very strongly about. It’s an emotional process,” said Brownsberger of Belmont. “I think when people take the time and really appreciate what we created here, we created a commission that is enormously powerful. . . . The commission is going to change policing.””

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The commission, which would be appointed by the governor and attorney general, would have at least three spots reserved for law enforcement officers but also several seats for civilians, including mandated spots for a social worker, a retired superior court judge, and an attorney nominated by the civil rights and social justice section council of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

“This the first time any state has combined this kind of real oversight authority with significant community membership at the table of power,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and one of the bill’s negotiators.

Representative Russell E. Holmes, who has pushed for years for the creation of such a commission, said Monday night he was still reading the proposal, but cheered the inclusion of several provisions, including a commission to study and recommend changes to the state’s civil service law.

“All my must-haves are there,” said the Mattapan Democrat, who has publicly prodded the six-member committee to reach an agreement before the Legislature’s session ends in early January. “Having a POST commission that has all those components is a giant leap forward.”

The agreement kept language passed by the Senate, but discarded by the House, that would allow the commission to open an investigation into an officer based on evidence that it “deemed sufficient.” The House had sought to raise the legal bar for when the state board would have the authority to investigate, requiring “a preponderance of evidence” that an officer may have engaged in misconduct.

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But that change had 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.

Among other changes, the bill would require an officer to intervene if he or she sees another officer using physical force “beyond that which is necessary,” according to legislators.

It includes changes spurred by the overtime fraud scandal within the State Police, including allowing the governor to appoint a colonel from outside the department. The bill would subject officers or troopers who knowingly submit a fraudulent timesheet to criminal penalties, including a fine that is three times the amount of the fraudulent wages paid or up to two years in prison.

The legislation also adds limitations on no-knock warrants, including allowing them only if an officer attests that he or she “has no reason to believe” that minor children or elderly adults are in the home. That language stems from an amendment filed by Representative Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat, who cited the deaths of Taylor and Aiyana Stanley-Jones in pushing the language on the House floor.




Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.