Massachusetts Democrats, Gov. Charlie Baker respond to calls for racial equity from minority lawmakers, protesters in wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody
By Steph Solis | Jun 11, 2020
The legislative response to the nationwide demonstrations calling for justice in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths by police is beginning to take shape.
Days after pledging to develop an agenda to address racial bias in policing, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he planned to advance the policing reforms proposed by the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus in the form of an omnibus bill.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who also met with the members, asked Thomas Turco, secretary of Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to work with legislators and experts on implementing a Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, system for law enforcement in Massachusetts.
Senate President Karen Spilka announced the creation of a racial justice advisory group led by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a BLLC member, and Senate President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger.
The announcement comes days after a group of senators, led by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, called for the reworking the governor’s $1 billion IT bond bill to re-allocate the funds for correction vehicles and facilities to local aid, including automating the sealing of criminal records.
Attorney General Maura Healy sent a letter to Congress asking them to empower state attorney generals to investigate and prosecute civil rights violations in law enforcement. She has also publicly backed Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s resolution condemning police brutality.
These moves follow days of protests in Boston, Springfield, Worcester and other parts of the state after the death of George Floyd. The 46-year-old black man was filmed dying in Minneapolis police custody as an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.
The protests also come after the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was shot by Louisville police in her home and Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was shot while running through a Georgia neighborhood earlier this year.
Protesters are pushing for a series of policy reforms to address structural racism, including mounting calls to “defund the police” that have entered city budget discussions across Massachusetts.
The Black and Latino Legislative Caucus last week formed a 10-point plan after elected officials of color gathered outside the Massachusetts State House. The plan outlines federal, state and local policy changes, including implementing peace officer standards and training at the state level.
DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat who is in his sixth term as speaker, addressed the protests in an email to legislators last week. He pledged to take “decisive action" to address “structural inequalities that lead to racial bias — both implicit and explicit," according to an email obtained by MassLive.
Lizzy Guyton, the governor’s communication director, said the governor’s suggestion to Turco to implement a POST system has been underway for several months.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to enhancing transparency and oversight for law enforcement and looks forward to working with the caucus and the Legislature to implement reforms soon,” she said in a statement to MassLive.
The promises to take action have spurred outrage from the right. Massachusetts GOP Chairman Jim Lyons criticized lawmakers supporting calls to “defund the police" as another cause of the left.
“The agenda of The Radical Left on Beacon Hill Defund Police , Safe injection Sites , Drivers licenses for illegal immigrants...and finally follow the lead of Ag Maura Healey .Yes America is burning. That’s how forests grow,” he said, referring to Healey’s previous tweet that appeared to condone protests that have at times involved violent clashes with police, fires and looting in the wake of Floyd’s killing.
Meanwhile, progressives expressed cautious hopefulness over the pledges to address structural racism from state leaders. They pointed to several bills that address racial inequities in criminal justice, housing, transportation and environmental justice that have died in committees or have otherwise failed to reach the governor’s desk in recent years.
DeLeo, who said he planned to incorporate policing reforms in an omnibus bill, met with caucus members Wednesday afternoon. In a joint statement, DeLeo and BLLC Chairman Carlos Gonzalez announced plans to pass legislation before July 31, the end of the two-year session, that incorporates parts of the plan.
“Together, we are outlining short-term actions required to help address structural inequalities that lead to racial bias -- both implicit and explicit – while identifying ways to make continued progress on issues that require additional review," DeLeo and Gonzalez said. “We are also focused on shared, overarching goals that will be part of future, separate discussions including education and income inequality.”
They said the legislation would create an independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct to provide statewide oversight of police conduct. The office would also review certifications and enhanced training for officers.
The bill also would impose a statewide ban on the use of chokeholds by law enforcement, require law enforcement to intervene in a situation where a colleague improperly uses force and creates a legislative commission to study and examine civil service law and recommend changes to recruit minority officers.
“As with any difficult task, the first step is to dig in and begin working," they said. “Today we took that first step.”
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, delivering remarks Tuesday during the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus’ legislative breakfast, said she was “angry and heartbroken" by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but that “as a white woman legislator, I also recognize that being angry and heartbroken are not enough if we truly wish to be allies in the fight for racial justice.”
Some critics, including Jonathan Cohn of Progressive Massachusetts, quickly noted that Spilka had removed Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who was the only woman of color in the Senate, from her post as co-chair of the Joint Committee of Education in 2019.
A day later, Spilka announced the creation of a racial justice advisory group led by Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, and Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat.
“I believe we have reached a history-making moment in our Commonwealth and that it should not pass without taking action on policing and racial justice this session,” Spilka said in a statement Wednesday.
The other members include Sen. Nick Collins, a Boston Democrat; Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat; Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat; and Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.
“My hope is that this working group will help the Senate quickly digest the advocacy we’re receiving and advance serious police accountability legislation in the immediate term — and keep our eye on the ball of racial justice more broadly even after this initial spike in public attention has passed," Chang-Diaz said in a statement.
Progressive advocates said they’re skeptical of the promises made by Democratic leaders, but hope to swift changes.
Cohn, the chair of the Issues Committee for Progressive Mass, raised concerns about the Senate’s decision to launch an advisory group rather than move forward with legislation, as well as the addition of Moore, a former police officer.
Cohn said lawmakers should instead focus on re-allocating resources from police and prisons to investments in housing, health care and other priorities to support communities of color. He pointed to the recent letter from senators calling for changes to the governor’s IT bond bill as a recent example.
“So many legislators will talk about their rhetorical commitment to racial justice, but if you’re putting more money into the prison system, you’re missing the point,” he said.
Jamarhl Crawford, a community activist in Boston, who has previously pushed for lawmakers to create a commission on policing, said state officials seemed afraid to touch studies on policing before.
“I’m optimistic, and something is better than nothing,” he said. "If all these people are now concerned and enthusiastic about pushing something, I cannot shun the new converts, but I hope that what we put together is something that actually has substance and teeth at the city levels, at the state levels and at the federal levels.”
Tanisha Arena, executive director of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, said lawmakers shouldn’t be satisfied with advisory groups and conversations, but hopes to see action taken in the following weeks through changes to city and state budgets and legislation.
“We’ve been here before. I don’t know that we ever left this place, so now’s a time for doing,” Arena said. “We’re beyond lip service, and it’s time.”
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