fb-pixel Skip to main content

House accepts revised police accountability bill, putting it on the verge of becoming law

Governor Baker has already pledged to sign bill once it hits his desk

Boston police outside the District 2 Police Station where protesters marched in May. Under the bill, a system for certifying police officers in Massachusetts would be instituted for the first time.
Boston police outside the District 2 Police Station where protesters marched in May. Under the bill, a system for certifying police officers in Massachusetts would be instituted for the first time.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts House on Tuesday approved a revised version of a sweeping policing bill, making it all but certain the state will soon enact legislation that emerged after protests over police misconduct and the death of George Floyd gripped Massachusetts and beyond.

The legislation would create for the first time a system for certifying police officers in Massachusetts and give a new civilian-led panel the ability to revoke their licenses for a range of misconduct.

A raft of revisions sought by Governor Charlie Baker, and ultimately accepted by lawmakers in both the House and Senate, included loosening proposed limits on the use of facial recognition and eliminating language that underpinned new standards on officers’ use of force. Baker also successfully pushed to keep oversight of training under his administration and police-dominated committee.

Advertisement



Baker said Tuesday that he would sign this version of the closely watched legislation, which sprinted through the Senate on Monday and the House on Tuesday night.

Both chambers are expected to finish a series of procedural votes Wednesday to officially shuttle it back to the governor’s desk.

Baker met on Dec. 16 with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus to negotiate the changes he pushed under the threat of a veto, and traded proposals with the Senate. Those talks ultimately eased the new version’s path through the Senate, clearing by a 31-9 margin, and then the House, where lawmakers adopted the changes without a roll call vote.

Baker endorsed the final version hours earlier, all but guaranteeing it becomes law before the legislative session ends Jan 5.

“I think it’s important for us to make absolutely clear about where we believe we are on that issue,” Baker said Tuesday at the State House.

The changes, however, sowed frustration among some advocates, who were hoping to push through a more ambitious proposal after demonstrations against police brutality and racism rolled through Boston and elsewhere following the death of Floyd, a Black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck in May.

Advertisement



Democratic leaders, who hold super majorities in the Legislature and hailed an earlier version of the bill as “landmark” legislation, were also forced to defend the final product as a best option in choosing between compromise or the bill failing altogether.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Monday that the legislation was “not a magic bullet,” and House leaders on Tuesday repeatedly referred to it as only one step in legislating change. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who last week disclosed he’s in talks to leave Beacon Hill for a job at Northeastern University, said he was “confident” the House would “build on this achievement in the time ahead.”

“This is a monumental step forward,” Representative Claire D. Cronin, an Easton Democrat, said from the House floor.

The bill would create a Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, a nine-member commission made up mostly of civilians who would handle the certification of officers, oversee investigations into misconduct, and revoke an officer’s license for certain misconduct.

The so-called POST commission could strip an officer’s certification if he or she is convicted of a felony, “knowingly” files a police report with false information, or is found to engage in other misconduct. Massachusetts is currently one of only a handful of states without a similar certification system.

Advertisement



“We [would] have the most robust POST commission in the country,” said Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who has for years pushed the idea of a certification system.

Holmes, too, said he’s keenly aware of frustration among racial justice advocates at the Legislature adopting Baker’s changes, but said the certification system is something he’s vowed to push for his predominantly Black and Latino district.

“I need to deliver what I told them,” he said. “I have to take a win when I see it.”

The complex bill — it stretched 129 pages when it was first sent to Baker — includes far more. It would ban police use of choke holds, and tweak the state’s qualified immunity law, which protects police officers from certain civil misconduct lawsuits. Lawmakers sought to tie qualified immunity, in part, to the new licensing process, where officers could lose the personal legal protection in cases where their conduct results in decertification.

It also would bar school personnel and school resource officers from sharing certain information about students with law enforcement, including whether they are believed to be in a gang “unless it is germane to a specific unlawful incident.” And it would require police to intervene if another officer is using unnecessary force.

But Baker opposed several parts of the bill, forcing the hand of the Senate and the House — where the original version passed without a veto-proof margin. After Baker balked at giving the civilian-controlled commission the authority to approve training regulations, the amendment that cleared both chambers instead keeps training oversight within a committee under Baker’s executive office of public safety.

Advertisement



That panel, known as the Municipal Police Training Committee, will also have a hand with the new POST commission in creating the rules and regulations for police use of force under the new language. State Police, who have been buffeted by a separate overtime fraud scandal, also will keep their own training structure.

Similarly, the Senate and House agreed to overhaul language to ban all public agencies, including law enforcement, from using facial recognition technology, except for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Under the original bill sent to Baker, police would have had to ask the Registry to conduct any searches.

Baker said he wouldn’t sign the measure with such a broad ban on the use of the technology, prompting lawmakers to agree to let the State Police use the tool as well. Other law enforcement entities could then ask the State Police, the Registry, or the FBI to conduct searches under the Senate’s new version.

Some police unions that had railed against the legislative product offered muted acceptance of the final version Tuesday. “We recognize the importance of this legislation,” the State Police Association of Massachusetts said in a statement.

To activists, however, the repeated changes continuously cut into a bill that, in some ways, had already failed to meet their expectations. Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston, said she was primarily frustrated that lawmakers did not do away with qualified immunity entirely — a move backed by US Representative Ayanna Pressley but vehemently opposed by unions.

Advertisement



“Every time that there was an update, something else was being watered down,” Cannon-Grant said. “Now you expect us to be happy, with nothing?”

Lawmakers also agreed to change new limits they had sought on no-knock warrants. The earlier version of the bill allowed police to execute the warrants only if an officer attests that he or she “has no reason to believe” that minor children or elderly adults are in the home.

But the new version included an exemption if police believe there is a “credible risk of imminent harm” to a minor or someone over the age of 65 — an apparent reaction to concerns raised by Attorney General Maura Healey that it could hamper police in cases of a kidnapping or a hostage situation.

Healey, speaking Tuesday in a WGBH radio interview, said the use of no-knock warrants is rare, estimating her office and most district attorneys use them probably “three or four times” each year.

“We have these cases, and we need to be able to get in and do the work,” Healey said, acknowledging the death of Breonna Taylor, which was cited in pushing the language. “What happened to Breonna Taylor was unacceptable. And I think that this bill is a step forward.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.