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Police reform: The long, hard slog ahead

The momentum of last summer must not be lost, even as officials blow by two deadlines.

Troy Gayle holds his son, Julian, 5, while listening to his wife, Latoya, speak during the March Like a Mother for Black Lives rally at Copley Square, June 27, 2020. The event was created in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery to empower mothers to stand in solidarity against racism and anti-blackness while demanding radical systemic change.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Justice for George Floyd is about to have its moment in a Minneapolis courtroom. But the revolution in policing that Floyd’s tragic death inspired — the revolution that brought thousands into the streets of Massachusetts communities last summer — is a longer, harder slog.

Marching is easy. Holding political officials to the promises they made is hard.

But that kind of vigilance is what it’s going to take to make police reform actually happen here. And having blown through deadlines on the appointment of two commissions assigned to deal with critical elements of police reform, the politicians who made those promises will require careful watching in the days ahead.


It was no secret — certainly not on Beacon Hill — that passage of the police reform bill was a beginning, not an end. Sure, the legislation sets up a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to hold police accountable for their actions, a statewide system for certifying all police and for decertifying bad actors. It’s due to go into effect on July 1.

“That’s the very heart of this bill,” said Senator Will Brownsberger, who helped shepherd it through the Legislature. “These are huge changes, and in five years you’ll see a very big impact on policing in this Commonwealth.”

But as the hours of the last session ticked down, a good many tough decisions about the shape of future legislation were left to commissions and task forces — at least 16 of them — of varying sizes but most a mix of lawmakers, gubernatorial appointees, and advocates.

And so it’s exceedingly disappointing that two of the most critical commissions are late having their members named and even later getting down to work. The organizations and officials who have to nominate and appoint members need to get moving.


A 22-member commission assigned to study the ramifications of facial recognition technology and propose safeguards and regulations around its possible use — remember, the police reform law was passed at a time when several communities, including Boston, had already banned use of the technology — was supposed to hold its first meeting by Feb. 15. Most of its appointees weren’t even named until that date — or later — and the committee as of this week had still not held its first meeting.

It is mandated to report back to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

A 29-member commission was tasked with examining the civil service laws under which most police are hired and promoted, plus hiring by municipalities not under civil service and hiring and promotion by the State Police, which remains the state’s least diverse law enforcement agency. The group was supposed to hold its first meeting 30 days after passage of the law — that would have been Jan. 30 — and meet “at least monthly” after that. Its members are currently still being named and no meeting has been scheduled. It is due to have draft legislation to the House and Senate clerks’ offices by Sept. 30.

Perhaps the most contentious issue during debate of the legislation, the issue of qualified immunity — when or whether police officers can be sued in civil court for their actions — will also fall to a special commission. (The legislation lifts the virtual ban on civil suits only for officers whose actions were so egregious that they have been decertified.) This 15-member commission (also not yet appointed) doesn’t have a specific start date — most of the special commissions and task forces don’t — but it is also due to report its findings and possible legislation by Sept. 30.


Those who read the tea leaves of legislative intent take those September reporting deadlines to mean that lawmakers might want a second crack at those issues during this legislative session. That means there’s no time to waste in getting those commissions named and put to work.

The 21-member special commission to study the establishment of a statewide police cadet program has a somewhat longer time frame — a Dec. 31 reporting deadline — but its work is no less crucial to solving the lingering problem of racial diversity within the ranks of police departments. Of course, there’s currently nothing to prevent the State Police from setting up its own cadet program here and now. Governor Charlie Baker’s proposed State Police reforms became law when he signed the bill at the end of last year.

State Police spokesman David Procopio said State Police Colonel Christopher Mason is working on it.

The momentum of last summer must not be lost — not when the job of creating police forces that look like the communities they serve has yet to be realized. It shouldn’t take another summer of protests to bring progress. But it will surely take vigilance and commitment by many who did the marching to make sure the job gets done by those who promised change.


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