History is being made here in Massachusetts on police reform. And while it may be less than some wanted, it surely qualifies as the top-to-bottom change in the way policing is done and in the way police are held accountable that thousands took to the streets last summer to demand.
Those multiracial, multiethnic voices were heard — loud and clear — by Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Karen Spilka. There would be change, they all pledged. Now, after months of negotiations, the Legislature made good on its part of that promise.
The killing of George Floyd by police, last May in Minneapolis, prompted a realization that no police department — state or local — comes to this issue with a spotless record. That realization prompted swift agreement that Massachusetts could take advantage of this moment to make real progress.
And so the framework of that reform began to take shape:
▪ A system for certifying police and, even more important, decertifying officers found guilty of misconduct.
▪ A new and transparent system to prevent problem cops from moving from one system to another.
▪ An outright ban on chokeholds, and sensible guardrails around the use of chemical agents, rubber bullets, and no-knock warrants.
▪ And ways to create police forces that better represent the diverse populations they serve.
The bill agreed to this week does all of that — and considerably more.
One thing it does not do is provide strict limits on the doctrine of qualified immunity, which has shielded police from civil suits for on-the-job wrongdoing. The final bill goes with the House version on that provision, which limits such immunity only in cases where an officer has been decertified by the police standards and training commission created by the legislation. In other words, only in the most egregious cases of misconduct.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Police lobbied heavily against any changes to qualified immunity, even endorsing the 66 House members (31 Republicans and 35 Democrats) who voted against the entire police reform package back in July.
In the end, politics is the art of the possible and — with COVID-19 making the conduct of business more problematic on Beacon Hill than usual — this compromise bill still yields a good many improvements and lays the groundwork for even more change in the future.
The Senate walked away with a significant victory of its own in the makeup of the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which will include a nominee of the civil rights and social justice section council of the Massachusetts Bar Association and one member from a list submitted by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination among its nine largely civilian members (three would be members of law enforcement). It’s not the law-enforcement heavy commission the governor envisioned in his own earlier proposal, but that surely shouldn’t give him any reason not to sign this bill.
That commission will become the certification and decertification agency for all police, including the State Police. Other Baker proposals to at long last enable civilian leadership for the State Police and set up a cadet program to help diversify the force are also incorporated in this wide-ranging piece of legislation.
The bill will also:
▪ Ban racial profiling by law enforcement and authorize the attorney general to enforce that ban through civil actions in the courts.
▪ Establish a duty to intervene by officers observing abuse of force by fellow officers.
▪ Mandate a community policing and behavioral health advisory council to make recommendations on expanding the use of non-police resources, including mental health experts, as part of crisis-response teams.
▪ Set up a commission to reexamine the state’s civil service laws as they apply to police hiring with the aim of diversifying those forces.
In a statement issued jointly by the speaker and Senate president late Monday, they noted, “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.”
Indeed, this is a beginning — a good beginning — but certainly not the last word on police reform in Massachusetts. That commission on civil service, for example, will be critical in the days ahead to making real progress on police hiring. And there’s no reason this needs to be the last word on limiting qualified immunity. A commission is also mandated to give that issue further study.
It should not have taken a string of tragedies to awaken the nation to the consequences of systemic racism that too often plague policing. Massachusetts can take some pride in being among the first to respond to this crisis with solid reforms, with an eye on more improvements to come.
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