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Massachusetts Legislature enacts broad police reform bill; next hurdle is Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto pen

By Steph Solis | Dec 10, 2020

All eyes are on Gov. Charlie Baker as a sweeping police reform bill lands on his desk.

Lawmakers enacted legislation that creates a certification process for police officers, bans officers from racial profiling and using tear gas and limits qualified immunity for those stripped of their credentials for misconduct. While both the House and Senate enacted the bill, the House didn’t secure a two-thirds majority that’s needed to override a veto from the Republican governor.

The passage of police reform legislation came after months of negotiations among key lawmakers over who oversees police certification, what restrictions certified officers face and if and when an officer can lose qualified immunity protections that can shield police from civil rights lawsuits. The final version is much broader than what Baker filed in June.

“I believe that this is an incredibly strong bill, strong for the safety of the residents of Massachusetts and strong for the safety of the police officers, the law enforcement across Massachusetts, providing many new tools,” Senate President Karen Spilka said Tuesday afternoon after senators accepted the conference committee report.

The final bill includes a nine-member commission on police certification, which includes law enforcement, legal experts and political appointees, as well as a host of recommendations filed by legislators on use of force, facial recognition and juvenile record expungement.

“I’m excited we passed policing reform, a landmark decision. I look forward to the next discussion with the governor as this hits the governor’s desk,” said Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat and chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, after the House enacted the proposal.

Whether the bill survives Baker’s veto pen is unclear. When asked about the bill Tuesday, Baker told reporters he hadn’t gotten a chance to see the details.

“I’m glad that this was something that was part of what they considered to be important to get done before the end of the session, but I can’t speak to the specifics of this until we have a chance to review it,” Baker said during a news conference earlier in the day at the State House.

Hours later, the Senate accepted the conference committee report with 28 voting yes and 12 voting no.

The House accepted a report from the conference committee on the legislation. The report passed by a vote of 92 to 67.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, who served on the conference committee with Gonzalez, was one of the no votes. He took issue with several elements of the bill, ranging from the ban on no-knock warrants if children or bystanders over age 65 are home to the makeup of the certification board, known as the Peace Officers Standards and Training commission. Three of the nine members are law enforcement officials, though others are appointed by the governor and the attorney general.

“As often. as I have to, that it’s important that we do enact reforms that are fair, sustainable, equitable and accountable, I don’t think that the POST commission membership that’s contained in this bill reflects those principles,” the Gloucester Republican said on the Senate floor.

Rep. Timothy Whelan, a former law enforcement official who was on the committee, took to the House floor to urge his colleagues to vote no. He said the limits on facial recognition, chokeholds and qualified immunity, at least for decertified officers, amounted to a “wish list” for advocates.

“Your no vote today can send this report back into conference,” the Brewster Republican said. “Your no vote today does not end the process. It allows it to continue, or this can go to the governor’s desk and we can appeal that he send it back to us with an amendment.”
Gonzalez said the bill bolsters standards for law enforcement agencies and protests Black and brown people who have already been hurt or killed during encounters with police.

“This is not a bill that is anti-cop,” he said on the House floor. “This is a bill that empowers police officers with appropriate training and guidance and support to be better in the field that they have selected to be in and we are thankful and grateful for them for doing so.”

In June, Massachusetts leaders pledged to respond to calls for racial justice and police accountability after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed on May 25. According to authorities and video footage, Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Baker first filed a bill in the summer after nearly a year of talks with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. That bill focused on creating a certification process for police officers and grounds for decertification, but criminal justice activists and attorneys said it failed to usher in reform.

The Senate followed with a sweeping bill that included not only a certification commission, but also a host of other changes to qualified immunity, use of force and facial recognition.

The House version included a host of recommendations, like the Senate bill, but it stated only decertified officers would lose qualified immunity protections. The final bill merged other elements of the House and Senate proposals, including a moratorium on facial recognition for most government agencies, expansion of juvenile record expungements, ban on racial profiling and other use of force restrictions for law enforcement officials.

“That was a compromise that I didn’t love making, but that I saw was worth making because there are so many other excellent things in this bill,” Chang-Diaz, a caucus member and conferee, said in an interview Monday night.

The debate over qualified immunity isn’t over, though, Chang-Diaz said Tuesday. If Baker signs the police reform bill, lawmakers will be studying qualified immunity and the impact changing those protections would have on Massachusetts police officers and the communities they serve.

“I prefer the Senate position on qualified immunity. It was a compromise and there’s no hiding the ball on that,” the Boston Democrat said. “So stakeholders who wish that the bill had gone further, I strongly encourage them to plug into that process, participate in advocacy around appointments to the commission and to watch the proceedings of the commission.”

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