Governor Charlie Baker sent back a sweeping police accountability bill to lawmakers Thursday, threatening to not sign it if they don’t address a series of changes he’s seeking, including keeping oversight of how officers are trained within his administration.
Baker’s decision to neither sign nor veto the bill, but return it to the Legislature with a variety of proposed amendments, clouds its future. The specter of a gubernatorial veto should lawmakers not agree with his changes immediately put pressure on the Legislature, where the 129-page proposal had divided Democrats and, in a rarity, emerged from the House without a veto-proof majority.
“There’s a lot in here that I’m concerned about, OK? But I want to sign a bill,” Baker said in a Globe interview Thursday. “We desperately need an accountability system in Massachusetts. Too many times, especially in communities of color, people are treated badly by law enforcement and there is simply, too often, little or no consequences for any of the people who are involved.
“That said,” he added, “there are parts of this bill that were never around the conversation” of holding police accountable.
Baker’s office said later that he would veto the bill should changes not be made, going further than he had in either his letter to lawmakers or the interview. And the potential of him rejecting the entire proposal left some supporters fearing that the landmark legislation could be derailed.
“Police policing police is not working, and we need [something] different,” said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston branch. “I’m very concerned about it not getting across the finish line. And it is incumbent on both the Legislature and the governor’s office that it does get across the finish line and really meets the moment.”
Baker lent support to several of the bill’s anchoring provisions, including the creation of a new Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, an independent, nine-member panel that would serve as the state’s primary civil enforcement agency. It would handle the certification of officers, investigations into misconduct, and could revoke an officer’s license.
Massachusetts is one of just a handful of states without a so-called POST system.
But he opposes giving the responsibility of overseeing police training to the new commission, where six of the nine commissioners would be civilians. Baker instead is pushing to keep it within the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee, which currently develops and provides training for local police and sits under Baker’s executive office of public safety.
“I do not accept the premise that civilians know best how to train police,” Baker wrote in his letter.
Three seats on the new commission would be reserved for law enforcement. Baker is also seeking to designate one of them for a labor official without disrupting the panel’s 6-3 balance, which Baker described as a first-of-its-kind composition for a police certification commission.
The bill also bars any public agency from using facial recognition technology — except for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Police could then request, in writing, the Registry run a search in cases of an emergency (such as a terrorist attack) or to execute a search warrant in cases of violent felonies.
Baker said he opposes that measure limiting police’s access to such technology, writing to lawmakers that it “ignores the important role it can play in solving crime.”
Baker said his proposals are intended to make sure the bill and the commission can be implemented, and he promised to file a supplemental spending bill to fund the “expensive proposition.” (He said Thursday that he didn’t have an exact number for what it would cost.)
“We don’t believe the amendments we put forth here change the direction or the vision or the accountability that was established by the Legislature,” Baker said. But, he said, pointing to one example, “I’m not going to sign something that is going to ban facial recognition.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, urged lawmakers to reject Baker’s amendment, arguing that “unchecked police use of surveillance technology also harms everyone’s rights to anonymity, privacy, and free speech.”
Legislative leaders who hammered out the contours of the bill hailed it as the fulfillment of their promise to, as House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said, “ensure fairness and equality” in response to a movement sparked by the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
The House passed the bill by a 91-67 margin, short of the 106 votes needed to solidify a veto-proof majority, and an unusual number of Democrats in both chambers broke ranks to join Republicans in voting against it. The Senate accepted the bill with just one vote above the minimum needed to overcome a gubernatorial veto.
With the bill landing back in the Legislature, lawmakers can now consider additional amendments beyond what Baker proposed, potentially extending a debate they had wrestled with for months. They also can simply send it back to Baker as is, without agreeing to his proposals. If legislators do that, the Republican governor would then have to sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.
Aides to Senate President Karen E. Spilka and DeLeo did not address Baker’s proposals Thursday, either declining comment or saying they were under review. The legislative session ends in early January.
State Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who has worked closely with Baker, said it falls partly on Spilka and DeLeo to “manage” the branches and ensure the legislation can move quickly back to the governor’s desk.
“My sense from talking to [Baker], there are things he absolutely wants, and there are things he compromised on,” Holmes said. “But he and I literally said, let’s have a goal of getting a bill signed by next Friday.”
The legislation drew heated resistance from police unions, who bristled at the attempt to regulate police operations and called it a “radical, cruel swipe” at law enforcement that could carry a raft of unintended consequences.
The State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents 1,900 troopers and sergeants, said it backed Baker’s proposed amendments. “While we remain concerned regarding several components, such as any commission composed of a majority of members not experienced in the profession, we recognize the importance of this legislation,” the union said in a statement.
Also rooted at the center of disagreement between lawmakers, unions, and reform advocates were competing proposals on reshaping 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.
Baker said Thursday that he has “concerns with it” but declined to detail them. He did not ask lawmakers to amend the language.
“The point here is to get a bill back to our desk that we can sign,” Baker said, adding of the changes to qualified immunity: “This was important to the Legislature, obviously.”