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Divided Legislature passes police accountability bill, sending controversial measure to Baker

Senate clerk Michael Hurley carried copies of the policing bill on Tuesday.
Senate clerk Michael Hurley carried copies of the policing bill on Tuesday.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A divided Massachusetts Legislature on Tuesday passed a sweeping police accountability bill that would subject thousands of officers to licensing standards for the first time and holds the potential to reshape law enforcement statewide.

Capping months of intense and often secretive debate, the Senate and House approved the controversial 129-page compromise hashed out by legislative leaders and sent it to Governor Charlie Baker, who has not made his views clear on several aspects of the bill.

But in a rarity for major legislation, the House did so without a veto-proof majority, and an unusual number of Democrats in both chambers broke ranks to vote against it amid vociferous opposition from police unions, who called it a “radical, cruel swipe” at law enforcement. Every Republican legislator voted against it.

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Legislative leaders have hailed the wide-ranging proposal as “landmark” legislation and among the most comprehensive bills in the country to pass in response to the flood of demonstrations sparked by the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Facing dissent within their own party, leading Democrats on Tuesday framed it in historic terms, urging lawmakers to embrace a compromise that first surfaced only 24 hours earlier and after four months of closed-door talks. The bill would create a new system for holding officers accountable, standardize how they’re trained, and strip officers of legal protections in some cases of misconduct.

“It takes courage to take a vote like this,” Representative Claire D. Cronin, an Easton Democrat and one of the chamber’s chief negotiators, said on the House floor, drawing a comparison between the bill and the seminal Voting Rights Act of 1965. “I believe in my heart and soul that history will look back on this vote kindly. And we will be on the right side of history.”

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The House passed the bill 91-67, and the Senate accepted the compromise 28-12, before officially enacting it without a roll call vote. In each case, the margin marked a slight erosion in support from when the chambers approved their own versions in July — 93-66 in the House and 30-7 in the Senate — and the new margin in the Senate was just one vote above the minimum needed to withstand a veto.

Baker has 10 days before choosing to sign, veto, or return the bill with an amendment, and said before the votes that he needed time to review it. But the Republican, who filed his own policing bill earlier this year, called increasing accountability “an issue that’s important to us.”

He’s likely to face fervent lobbying from police unions, who relaunched their efforts to beat back the bill within hours of its initial release on Monday night. The state’s largest union told its 4,300 members that the bill and the process lawmakers used to shepherd it through the chambers show that officers are being “disregarded, dismissed, and disrespected.”

“The bill as written simply goes too far in micromanaging police operations and establishing new protocols that will create dangerous situations and bring harm to not only police officers on the job, but to the public as well,” Scott A. Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, and other leaders of the union wrote to members Tuesday.

The Legislature, they said, has “taken a radical, cruel swipe at those sworn to protect and serve. They seek to punish police just for being police.”

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The legislation would create a new 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 revoke an officers’ license for a range of misconduct.

The so-called POST commission could strip an officer’s certification if they are convicted of a felony, “knowingly” file a police report with false information, or use deadly excessive force, among dozens of examples of misconduct laid out in the legislation.

Massachusetts currently is one of just a handful of states without a POST system.

The legislation also would ban choke holds, set new limits on so-called no-knock warrants, and codify standards for use of force. 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.

“This is not a bill that’s anti-cop. This is a bill that empowers police officers . . . to be better in the field that they have selected to be in,” said Representative Carlos González, chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

The Springfield Democrat cited repeated incidents of police officers dodging legal trouble, including a recent Globe report that found dozens of Boston officers who were allowed to quietly resign without charges or remain on the force. “It was clear and evident that we needed police reform,” González said.

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House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, referencing the push by advocates to tighten police accountability, said lawmakers had vowed to usher in change during the summer. “With today’s vote, the Legislature acted on its promise to ensure fairness and equality,” the Winthrop Democrat said.

But unions and some lawmakers quickly criticized several aspects of it, including the commission’s makeup. The nine-person panel would include appointments from the governor and attorney general, and three spots would be reserved for law enforcement officers.

Lawmakers, however, crafted the bill so the majority of the seats could go to civilians, with 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.

Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said he was concerned the language could face legal hurdles in how it would handle officers who are accused of misconduct. The panel could immediately suspend a certification if, for example, an officer is arrested, charged, or indicted on a felony or if a preliminary probe determines by a “preponderance of the evidence” that a suspension is in the public interest.

The commission can ultimately choose to revoke or suspend an officer’s license after a hearing if it finds “clear and convincing evidence” the officer engaged in misconduct, according to the legislation.

“I think there is a way for us to do it . . . without undermining due process,” said Pacheco, who voted against the compromise.

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Legislative leaders rejected that, saying the process set up for police is similar to that constructed for other licensed professions, including lawyers or teachers. “It’s the exact same situation,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said.

Also rooted at the center of disagreement between lawmakers, unions, and reform advocates 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.

US Representative Ayanna Pressley, while praising the bill as a “step forward,” specifically said the qualified immunity provision doesn’t go far enough.

“Rather than ending the harmful doctrine outright, Massachusetts has missed an opportunity to lead by ensuring that those responsible for upholding the law are subject to it too,” Pressley said in a statement Tuesday.

Critics, however, saw it differently, warning it could set a precedent for other public professions. “Rest assured, we’ll be coming after somebody else’s qualified immunity tomorrow,” said Representative Timothy Whelan, a Brewster Republican and retired State Police sergeant. “We must do better.”

To advocates who have prodded the Legislature for months to act, the bill and its creation of the commission was a long-fought victory.

“Nothing like this has been achieved before in Massachusetts in the history of our state,” Beverly Williams, cochair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, said Tuesday.

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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