The six Massachusetts lawmakers negotiating the terms of a final police reform proposal have no shortage of input from interest groups.
A group of African Methodist Episcopal Church pastors urged lawmakers on the conference committee to include limits to qualified immunity, as outlined in the Senate bill, and a stricter governmental ban on facial surveillance, as proposed by the House.
Members of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a coalition of 4,300 officers, have sent emails to conferees urging them to strip the broader restrictions proposed by the House and Senate. They laid out seven core principles for police reform that they say were the crux of Gov. Charlie Baker’s policing bill and were backed by the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.
The Black & Latinx City Council Presidents submitted a letter calling for a civilian-led commission for training, a decertification process for problem police officers and other reforms. Among the signatories were Springfield City Council President Justin Hearts and Boston City Council President Kim Janey.
These are just a fraction of the letters hitting the inboxes of the six conferees. Those lawmakers are Sens. William Brownsberger of Belmont, Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain and Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, as well as Reps. Claire Cronin of Easton, Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield and Timothy Whelan of Brewster.
Brownsberger and Chang-Diaz, both Democrats, served on the racial justice advisory group that drafted the Senate bill along with Tarr, a Republican serving as the Senate minority leader. Chang-Diaz is also a member of the BLLC.
Gonzalez, chairman of the BLLC, worked with Cronin, Judiciary Committee co-chair, on drafting the House proposal. Both are Democrats.
Whelan, a Republican, was one of 66 House members who voted against the police reform bill.
The 93 lawmakers who voted for the House policing bill ensured the proposal could move forward, but it falls short of the two-thirds majority the House needs to override a veto from the governor. For some representatives, the margin was too close for comfort.
The conference committee met throughout the last week, which traditionally would have marked the final week of formal sessions. The House and Senate adopted orders extending formal sessions past Friday, but the committee still met on and off for more than 12 hours. They did not reach a deal.
“Regarding police reform, the conferees are working productively to come to agreement,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, said in a statement issued early Saturday. “We are committed to reaching resolution, and the conferees will take the time to get it right.”
Senate President Karen Spilka previously said she was confident the conference committee could reach a deal on the police reform bill by Friday even if formal sessions are extended. On Friday, she said the conferees need more time to get the details right.
“It’s better to get it right than just get it done for the sake of getting it done,” she told reporters.
Officers affiliated with MassCOP argue the Senate’s approach isn’t the right one. In letters to the conferees, they called the process to move legislation “dangerously rushed” and called on conferees to stick to the provisions agreed to by the BLLC and Baker.
The group laid out seven principles they want lawmakers to focus on as they finalize the bill: banning chokeholds, standardized training across the state, equal representation from police in oversight boards, accreditation for agencies and certification for officers, guidelines banning excessive force and promoting diversity.
Almost everything else the Senate or House has proposed, they say, is punitive. The law enforcement officers argue limits to qualified immunity should be studied, not implemented.
“It is difficult not to conclude that some Senate and House members have aligned with those who wish to punish police officers just for being police officers,” the letters state. “I implore you, please do not join those who have taken this unfortunate stance.”
The City Council Presidents group urges the conference committee to create a civilian-led commission for training, certification and de-certification of officers that can independently investigate misconduct complaints, audit internal agencies’ internal investigations and make investigations subject to public records laws. They also backed stricter limits to qualified immunity that were in the Senate bill.
Other changes they proposed: the House’s creation of a commission to study civil service and other reforms; the House version of the no-knock warrants ban that only allows warrants to be carried out if officers can attest that no children or elders are home; a requirement to collect racial data on traffic stops; and the creation of a fund that takes money saved as the incarceration rate drops and redirects the funds to economic resources in communities that have historically had the highest levels of policing.
“As municipal leaders of color, we know firsthand — both from our work in government and our lived experiences with racism — that police violence and discrimination are not only problems that exist elsewhere in the country, but are daily realities for too many residents of color in our commonwealth,” the council wrote.
Leaders of the Boston-Hartford District in the New England Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church submitted a letter to conferees Sunday. Fifteen pastors signed onto the letter, including the Rev. Gregory G. Groover of Charles St. AME Church in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood and the Rev. Marcus T. McCullough of Bethel AME Church in Springfield.
“We recognize that both the House of Representatives and the Senate have made meaningful attempts to respond to the demands for justice in light of the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” wrote the group, which represents 12 churches with more than 4,000 members in Massachusetts. “We also recognize that the respective bills miss key opportunities to address decades-long policing practices that have caused harm to people in communities of color, many of whom are our congregants.”
The pastors urged lawmakers to meet the BLLC’s four demands: a police certification and decertification system that can independently investigate misconduct complaints, a civil service exam commission, a structural racism commission and limits on use of force that include banning choke holds, tear gas and most no-knock warrants.
They also called for stricter limits to qualified immunity, as proposed by the Senate, and a broader ban on face surveillance technology, as proposed by the House.
“We are pleased to see that the House bill bans the use of the technology with limited exemptions for police use only in exigent circumstances,” the pastors wrote.
The Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group did not make a final pitch to the conferees directly, but sent a letter to Baker and the Legislature Monday. The group’s leaders reiterated their calls for a bill that sticks to the BLLC’s priorities that union leaders agreed to in previous meetings. They reiterated the seven core principles, just as MassCOP did.
“Our request and our desires have been the same from the start,” Lawrence Calderone, the president of the policy group, told MassLive in an interview. “Our message is always the same: common sense reform.”
While law enforcement officials say the bills are too extreme, civil rights advocates argue the bills don’t go far enough, Gonzalez said on a Friday night in July after the House passed its policing bill.
“We have advocates and we have individuals that feel their sides weren’t heard,” he said, “but I think for the betterment of Massachusetts residents, for improving race relations and police reform, we have a bill we probably can stand on today and be able to work towards a bill we can get to the governor’s desk with the short period of time and be able to pass.”
A week later, Gonzalez and other lawmakers continued to negotiate on what that final bill will look like.
“I think we’ve been having tough conversations, productive conversations,” Gonzalez said.
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