The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May launched what seemed like a powerful national movement to change police practices and increase police accountability.
In Massachusetts, though, the promise of reform is running up against the power of police unions, as Governor Charlie Baker decides what to do with a sweeping police reform bill sent to him last week by the Legislature. Police unions want him to veto it or send it back with amendments that will weaken or maybe even doom it — even as they insist they believe in reform.
It’s a mixed message that doesn’t add up, and Baker should not be swayed by it.
When the the bill came up for a vote, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, which represents the largest group of law enforcement officers in the state, said it disrespected police and exhorted its members to call on lawmakers to oppose it. At the same time, the union professed to support “smart and productive police reforms.” Now the union wants Baker to veto the bill unless “the Legislature agrees to make significant, structural changes that correct these flaws and are acceptable to our members.” Yet union leaders still insist they support “sensible police reform.”
A veto would kill it for now, since the bill passed without a veto-proof majority in the House. Baker could also send it back with amendments that require another round of votes. That would give unions another chance to bully lawmakers into rejecting it, or just run down the clock to the end of the session.
Or a union leader with vision and courage could actually step up, accept the need for meaningful reform, and help to make it happen. That would be fitting, given the original impetus for this reform movement — the sickening sight of a man struggling for breath, with one officer’s knee on his neck, as others watched.
The excruciating video of Floyd’s death prompted soul-searching everywhere. Standing with members of the state’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, Baker, a Republican, was the first to file a police reform bill, in June. At that time, police unions expressed support for what was described as “a list of building blocks for similar police reforms in legislation.”
Baker’s bill started a meaningful conversation about reform, by proposing a 14-member commission — half civilian, half law enforcement — to oversee certification of police. The 129-page compromise bill that ultimately emerged from the legislative conference committee greatly expands the scope of reform. It sets up a commission made up of three law enforcement members and six civilian members. It establishes a system for certifying police and decertifying those found guilty of misconduct. It also bans choke holds and restricts the use of chemical agents, rubber bullets, and no-knock warrants. Meanwhile, it creates a database as a way to stop problem cops from moving from one department to another. None of these measures should be seen as a threat to responsible police officers and policing practices.
If police unions oppose them, what do they support? Surely the vow to support “smart and productive” reforms wasn’t just talk, right?
Scott Hovsepian, the president of MassCOP, who is also treasurer of the National Association of Police Organizations, was unavailable for comment. In a statement released on Sunday, the group said it opposes the current bill on the grounds that it makes police officers “second class citizens” by denying them the right to a full investigation before proceedings to decertify them. The union also objects to the makeup of the commission and questions the new use-of-force regulation.
Union resistance to reform is clear. During a meeting with President Trump on July 31, Hovsepian blasted Massachusetts police reform efforts, saying, “They want to file bills so that we will not be able to put our hands on someone unless we’re arresting them.”
During his meeting with Trump, Hovsepian also expressed concerns about proposed changes to the doctrine of qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil lawsuits for on-the-job wrongdoing. In the end, the unions mostly won that battle. They were largely successful in their efforts to eliminate any broad changes to qualified immunity from the final legislation, which limits such immunity only in cases where an officer has been decertified by the police standards and training commission created by the legislation.
They should not be able to kill the reform measures that survived.
Until unions show they’re serious about good-faith reforms, Baker and the Legislature should take their complaints with a heavy dose of salt and move forward with the bill. These reforms are what Massachusetts needs to have police forces empowered by the community’s trust.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.