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EDITORIAL

Policing the police finally gets underway

Transparency, diligence key to ushering in a new post-George Floyd era in public safety in Massachusetts.

Former Boston police officer Patrick M. Rose Sr. covers his face during arraignment on Aug. 13, 2020. Rose was kept on the force even after the department’s own investigators concluded he had molested a child in 1995.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It took an agonizing 9 minutes and 29 seconds under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for the life of George Floyd to come to an untimely end on the evening of May 25, 2020.

It took a summer of protests in the midst of a pandemic to awaken a nation to the need to change the way policing is done.

Here in Massachusetts, it took the rest of that year to craft and negotiate legislation aimed at doing just that — setting new and clear standards for the use of force and a way to weed out those officers who have no business carrying a badge and a gun.

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Today — a year later — that Herculean job has just barely begun, and the new agency at the center of the effort is still in the process of hiring staff even as the disciplinary records of thousands of police officers — due by the end of the year — are flooding in.

If that agency, the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, can keep accused sexual predators like Patrick Rose from spending decades in Boston Police uniforms or prevent Springfield narcotics Detective Gregg A. Bigda from ever returning to the force after being acquitted earlier this month of brutality charges, then the waiting will be worth it.

Its legal remit — and the numbers involved — give the POST Commission the ability to do a lot of good. The commission, appointed last April, has the power to certify — and most importantly to decertify based on misconduct — more than 21,000 police officers serving in 444 different agencies. In addition to the state police, local departments, the MBTA and Massport police, its reach includes university and hospital police departments.

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It issued its first certification standards just this month in conjunction with the Municipal Police Training Committee, in advance of a July 1 deadline to recertify more than 10,000 police officers. Yet it currently faces that chore without a director of standards or a director of certification.

That directive, in addition to listing the minimum standards for all officers, also lists an “automatic” disqualification for any officer “convicted of a felony or whose name is listed in the national decertification index.”

“We want to make sure someone who is decertified in another state doesn’t end up working for another department here,” commission executive director Enrique Zuniga said in an interview. But Zuniga, appointed in September, also conceded that the national index itself is “a work in progress.”

The NDI gets some funding through the Justice Department but not all states report data to it and some states — like Massachusetts prior to passage of the 2020 police reform bill — still have no way of actually decertifying officers. Oh, and the database that does exist isn’t public. It’s available only to law enforcement agencies.

Asked if the data the commission is amassing on disciplinary records for officers in the 444 agencies will be public, Zuniga replied, “Let me give you a qualified ‘yes’ — once it is aggregated. And information might need to be redacted, if there’s an ongoing disciplinary action. But my expectation is that disciplinary information will be available.”

And while the commission is getting help with its IT work from existing state agencies, it still doesn’t have its own technology chief to lead that data-driven work.

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Meanwhile Zuniga said a few direct complaints have trickled into the commission via its web portal, but the agency is still developing its own online form for citizen complaints as well as a process for holding its own disciplinary hearings.

That process as outlined in the commission’s latest draft regulations — expected to be voted on at the commission’s Jan. 14 meeting — however, shows a disturbing tendency toward possible closed-door sessions.

“All or portions of an adjudicatory hearing . . . may be closed to the public in order to protect privacy interests or for other good cause shown. Such a determination rests in the sole discretion of the chair,” the draft regulations state.

Most complaints will continue to be handled first at the local level, with local agencies required to report to the POST Commission within 48 hours of a complaint being lodged.

As of last week, some 818 such complaints have been transmitted to the commission, including a fair number by the state police. The “vast majority” of complaints Zuniga characterized as “minor,” involving “people who felt disrespected” or were “not happy with the law enforcement officer.”

Of course, the state law that gave the POST Commission life, also mandates it “shall actively monitor the database to identify patterns of unprofessional police conduct.” And nothing is “minor” to the person facing an officer with a gun on his hip.

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Bringing policing into a new era — one that protects public safety and respects the rights of civilians — isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take a huge amount of work, not just by those appointed to do a critical piece of it, but by the same advocates who helped get this law over the finish line.

It will require transparency on the part of the POST Commission — for their work is too important to be done behind closed doors. And it will require diligence by the communities that have too often suffered because of bad policing to make sure the momentum for change is never lost.

That should be the mandate and the mission for 2022.


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