In the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, cries for police reform and accountability reverberated across the country. In Massachusetts, those demands led to legislation that banned chokeholds, limited the use of no-knock warrants, and established a statewide police oversight board.
Known as the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission, the new board will oversee officers at each one of the state’s 431 law enforcement agencies, identify and investigate corruption, and decertify officers found guilty of misconduct. Its first charge is to evaluate a group of nearly 9,000 officers in person by July 1, a deadline established under the 2020 law, as part of a new recertification process.
As of Thursday, the commission had reviewed the records of more than 6,000 officers, with fewer than 10, so far, deemed unfit to serve. The results do not include the Boston Police Department and Massachusetts State Police, which have requested a 30-day extension. But the few rejections to date are raising concerns that the commission’s initial assessments of officers’ conduct and character are less rigorous than reform advocates had hoped.
Jamarhl Crawford, a police reform activist who for years lobbied for an independent oversight commission, said the preliminary results are a warning the process “lacks the type of accountability and oversight that was the spirit of the whole thing in the first place.”
The Friday deadline has forced the commission to rely on recommendations from local police chiefs, whose character assessment of their officers weighs heavily in the process.
Enrique Zuniga, the commission’s executive director, called the task of interviewing nearly 9,000 officers by the end of June “a very, very big lift” and said he knew soon after he was hired last September that there would be “no amount of people I could hire and train to make a determination of good moral character in time to comply with the deadline” in just nine months.
“We almost had to rely by necessity on the chiefs, which is what we’re doing,” Zuniga said. Even if the commission had been able to conduct independent, external interviews, the team would still likely have checked in with the chiefs “because they know their people the best.”
State Representative Liz Miranda, who advocated for independent oversight as a core part of the 2020 law, said she “found it alarming” that a third-party review wasn’t part of the initial recertification process.
“I didn’t want it to be overwhelmingly law enforcement because . . . we continuously give power to the systems that are already broken,” she said. “We hear a lot about ‘bad apples’ and ‘bad decisions,’ but some of those bad apples are leading to loss of life.”
Miranda, who lost her brother to homicide, wants the commission to “pay attention to how we address the issue of police chiefs who are not able or fitting to be the only one reviewing officers” — a concern Zuniga acknowledged.
”I do realize relying on the local chain of command has this potential risk: Is this an opportunity for a chief to get rid of somebody that they couldn’t in the past, or to give way to favoritism of some kind?” he said, adding that the law has language to discourage those situations, while admitting the commission “needs to improve on” the issue.
While Zuniga said he expects the vast majority of officers to be recertified, the commission has flagged another 60 for “further review,” putting them at risk of not receiving certification. Officers without certification can continue to work for their departments, but lose police powers such as making arrests.
However, Crawford said the initial review differs sharply from advocates’ original blueprint for independent oversight.
“Under the vision I was trying to lay out, law enforcement would not be this heavily involved, because they’ve already shown either an inability or unwillingness to police themselves,” Crawford said. He and others recommended reviews be conducted by the state Municipal Police Training Committee, which is responsible for certifying new officers, in partnership with organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP.
State Senator William Brownsberger, a lead negotiator for the 2020 reform bill, said that the commission is still in its infancy and that it would take time for it to wield its full authority.
“It may take five or 10 years before people have a sense of the power of this agency, but it has extraordinary strength and independence,” Brownsberger said. “It’s definitely still getting started, but my hope is that this will be a century-scale institution with a multidecade impact that affects the climate in Massachusetts in a very positive way.”
In the coming months, the commission will assume a broader oversight role, reviewing cases of police discipline across the state and determining whether appropriate action was taken by the local department. If the commission determines the outcome of an investigation was too lenient, it can order more serious disciplinary action be taken.
Since the police oversight law was passed, scandals at departments across the state have underscored the need for accountability. In 2020, a Globe investigation found dozens of state troopers were allowed to keep their jobs after sustained charges of drunk driving and partying with known criminals. Last year, 14 current and former Boston police officers were charged with falsifying their time sheets to collect more than $300,000 in fraudulent overtime. More recently, state authorities began investigating the death of a pregnant woman in April who had extensive ties to Stoughton police.
Zuniga said he hopes the certification process will eventually rely more on a disciplinary database tracking internal affairs investigations and citizen complaints throughout the state, with the input of local police chiefs as a secondary measure. The commission planned to make the database public in June, but pushed that deadline back until the certification process is complete.
Roughly 8,600 officers, whose last names begin with A-H, are up for recertification. The commission plans to finish its review of every law enforcement officer in the state by July 2024, as the process resets every three years.
Chiefs may use all the information at their disposal to evaluate the character of their officers, Zuniga said. But evaluators must ask each officer six core questions, including sections on disciplinary history, use of excessive force, and restraining orders. The questionnaire was initially drafted with eight mandatory questions, but a Superior Court judge ruled Monday that two of the questions required answers that violated officers’ civil liberties and had to be dropped.
“The questions improperly involve matters of free speech and free expression, religious affiliation and religious beliefs, private and personal financial information, and a request for overly vague and undefined personal assessments,” the three police unions, which filed the lawsuit earlier this year, said in a statement.
Law enforcement agencies were required to submit certification materials by June 15, but 21 departments requested extensions, and their officers will be conditionally certified until mid-July.
“We’re trying our best to comply with the deadlines set by the statute, and so this process is a work in progress,” Zuniga said. “But this commission is here to stay, and . . . certification is an opportunity for us to establish a minimum set of requirements, check that everybody meets them, and raise the bar from there.”