After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Governor Charlie Baker said he wanted to change policing in Massachusetts.
He can do it now. All he has to do is stand up to police unions who want to stop reform.
After months of secret negotiations, state lawmakers this week passed a bill that requires police officers to be certified by the state — a first for Massachusetts. The legislation would also create a civilian-led commission authorized to investigate misconduct and decertify officers who are “convicted of a felony, knowingly file a police report with false information, or use deadly excessive force.” The bill doesn’t eliminate qualified immunity, the controversial doctrine that “shields police from being held personally liable for constitutional violations,” according to Lawfare. But an officer who loses certification could also lose that protection. The bill, described by proponents as landmark legislation, also bans chokeholds and limits the use of facial recognition technology.
Complaining that police officers are being “disregarded, dismissed, and disrespected,” police unions want Baker to veto the reform package. With that, they are making the politics of this choice easy to define. Will Baker stick with reform, or with police unions who stand in its way?
On Tuesday, Baker said he needs time to review the specifics before deciding whether to sign the bill into law. But remember, this is a governor with a remarkable talent for finding the least-risky middle ground, whether he’s calling out President Trump’s election fraud claims or regulating business during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s revamping the Supreme Judicial Court, yet somehow setting up a centrist bench that seems unlikely to rock many ideological boats. If there’s a way to find the middle ground with police reform, he will find it.
Last June, spurred by Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed, the governor filed his own bill to create a police certification process and civilian commission to oversee it. Baker’s proposal did not address qualified immunity. But he did launch the first round of police accountability legislation, and put pressure on Beacon Hill to follow suit. The House and Senate passed separate proposals that were assigned to a legislative conference committee whose deliberations were kept out of the public eye. For a while, it looked like lawmakers might cave to the unions and do nothing. Then, suddenly this week, out popped a 129-page bill that was voted on the next day. With that, the police reform hot potato was put into the governor’s hands.
Baker could either sign the bill, send it back with amendments that further water it down, or do what police unions want and veto it. With Democratic leaders apparently shy of enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, that action by Baker would end the police reform effort for now. But such a union-pleasing result would be a bad look for Baker on two fronts.
The police reform bill also applies to the Massachusetts State Police, and its opponents include the union which represents state troopers. During his years as governor, Baker has often seemed reluctant to take on the state law enforcement agency that has been rocked by scandals on his watch. Yet one of the provisions of the police bill would give Baker the ability to appoint an outsider to head the agency. How could he veto a package that gives him a change he said he needed and wanted?
In June, when he filed his bill, Baker stood with members of the state’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus to declare that “the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers made it clear that now is the time to get this done.” How can he scuttle that mission now? He can’t.
How game-changing the end product will be is the real question.