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Police reform: A roadmap for the future

The job of healing old wounds, creating more diverse police forces, and advancing 21st century law enforcement is just beginning.

Clerk of the Senate Michael Hurley carried Massachusetts' landmark police reform bill, which should mark a beginning, not an end, to reform in the state.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The ink is hardly dry on the state’s landmark police reform bill. Still this is no time to lose focus on all that remains to be done to truly change the face of policing in Massachusetts.

This was, after all, a beginning, not an end.

A good deal will depend on the quality and the commitment of those who will eventually fill the slots on the civilian-majority police review commission. Beyond that, the real pathway to progress will be built by several of the special commissions whose missions have been baked into the just-passed legislation.

And the ultimate test will be whether individual municipalities, whose oversight of their local police forces can range from timid to downright scandalous, absorb the spirit of greater police accountability enshrined in the new law by insisting on tougher union contracts and management. One only has to look to the union resistance to Boston’s efforts to implement police-worn body cameras for a reminder of how hard reform can be at the local level.

As much as people want to put 2020 in their rear-view mirror, the widely shared sense of the injustice laid bare by the death of George Floyd, held under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for those agonizing minutes, must not be forgotten in the euphoria of self-congratulation for this good start on policing reform.


Special commissions, like those to review the state’s civil service laws — which for too long have virtually guaranteed largely white, male-dominated police forces around the state — will be key to whether policing undergoes the kind of change that was envisioned when demonstrators took their passion for justice to the streets in the summer of 2020.

Creating police forces that are as diverse as the communities they serve will depend on long overdue reform of the state’s civil service law, a task now assigned to a special legislative commission. Its mandate is to “make recommendations for changes to improve diversity, transparency, and representation of the community in recruitment, hiring and training” for all law enforcement, including the state police. Mayor Marty Walsh has also asked for changes to the civil service law that would allow the city to give preference to Boston high school graduates as a way of diversifying the city’s police force. Surely that, too, should go on the commission’s agenda.


Another key to diversifying Massachusetts’ least diverse force, the state police, remains with a provision authorizing the head of the state police (who can now be appointed from outside its ranks) to establish a new cadet program as an alternative to entry through the civil service process. That can’t happen soon enough.

The rest of the unfinished business of police reform can be found in a host of commissions and task forces also set up by the legislation:

▪ Special legislative commissions on structural racism in correctional facilities, the parole process, and in probation services.

▪ A commission to further investigate the impact of qualified immunity on the administration of justice. (The new law mandates only that police officers who are decertified for misconduct lose their right to invoke qualified immunity in any resulting civil cases.)

▪ A task force to propose regulations for a unified code on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement officers and for minimum requirements for the storage and collection of those recordings.


▪ A Community Policing and Behavioral Health Advisory Council to make recommendations for creating a crisis response system “that delivers alternative emergency services.” The notion that not every 911 call can best be handled by an officer with a badge and a gun is gaining traction here as around the nation.

At the time the police reform bill passed, Senate President Karen E. Spilka noted it was “not a magic bullet to reverse the pain and injustice endured by communities of color and those disproportionately affected by law enforcement.” She reiterated her commitment “to listening to communities of color and doing the hard work of advancing legislation that brings us closer to our goal.”

Now-former House Speaker Robert DeLeo noted in a statement, “I am confident the House of Representatives will build on this achievement in the time ahead.” The speaker has retired, but that promise must still be kept.

Racial injustice, discriminatory policing and downright bad policing won’t be cured by one piece of legislation. But the legislation does provide a roadmap — and that roadmap demands political leaders who mean what they say and an active citizenry to hold them to the promises they made.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.