Police reform is an idea whose moment is right now — and Governor Charlie Baker recognizes that as well anyone.
Baker sent the Legislature’s hotly contested police reform bill back with amendments on Thursday. But he stressed in an interview that he strongly supports most of its provisions, and made it clear that he wants to sign a bill before the end of the session.
“Part of my objective here was to maintain and support the spirit, intent, and construct of what the Legislature did,” Baker said in a telephone interview. “I want to sign this bill.”
While Baker wrote a 13-page letter laying out his objections, they boil down to two issues. One, he opposes a provision that would allow a newly created board to oversee police training. And, two, he is against severely curtailing the use of facial recognition technology. The bill, in current form, would mandate a study of its use — but would also bar law enforcement from employing the technology.
That has prompted strong objections from law enforcement — including, to the dismay of some advocates, Attorney General Maura Healey. Baker argues that the sequence in the bill is backward — that the issue should be studied first, before anything is banned.
“At some level, I think it’s unusual to create a commission to study something and get rid of it at the same time,” Baker said. “I’m not going to take the tool away when there are clear instances where it has made a big difference in public safety.”
But while the details are yet to be resolved, it’s worth noting how far Beacon Hill has come on this issue. The passage of sweeping reforms that create greater oversight and accountability for police officers would have seemed unlikely just a year ago.
For that reason, it is urgent that this bill become law before the legislative session ends in early January.
“The issues that are addressed in this bill were not even close to seeing the light of day in January 2020,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP. “This has to get done. This could set a model not just for Massachusetts, but for the nation.”
Baker said he began working with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on a police reform bill last fall. At that point, the discussions were much more narrow in focus than the reforms under discussion now.
“The main reason we got into this conversation with the caucus back in the fall of ’19 was the commentary from a lot of folks in the caucus about their own experiences — or the experiences of their friends and their family and their neighbors or their communities — with law enforcement,” Baker said. “Those stories were compelling.”
Meanwhile, the world was changing — and so were the politics of police reform. What began as an interesting idea became a matter of utmost urgency. The calls for change — the protests demanding it — were occurring right on the doorstep of the State House, far too loudly to be ignored.
Essentially, the ball is back in the Legislature’s court. With the governor’s buy-in on most — but not all — of the key issues, lawmakers and advocates are left to decide whether police training oversight or a facial recognition technology ban are a reason to risk all the progress that stands to be made.
I don’t think that’s a hard call.
Though he did not say so directly, I suspect Baker compromised on a number of issues to serve the greater good. The changes to qualified immunity, in particular, won’t sit well with part of his base. But he said he wanted to object on the most narrow grounds possible, mindful that the clock is quickly winding down on this session.
If the Legislature has come a long way on this issue, so has Baker himself. This has been a year of reflection, for many people. The stories of Baker’s colleagues — particularly in the Black and Latino Caucus — pushed him.
“One of the things about public life that has made a big impression on me has been the chance it’s given me to get significantly outside my own life experiences,” Baker said. “There’s simply no question in my mind that this action that we’re taking here is something that we need to do, and something that we should do. And the events of last summer simply amplified — in horrible and terrible ways — how long overdue it’s become.”