The Massachusetts Senate’s wide-ranging police reform bill is held up over criticisms that legislators didn’t get enough time to review the bill and that the proposal hasn’t been put to a public hearing.
The Senate plans to meet at 10 a.m. Friday to discuss the bill after Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, tabled the bill over concerns about a lack of a public hearing and insufficient time to debate the bill.
“The truth is this bill, as I’ve outlined, had no hearing, it had little-to-no input from numerous stakeholders publicly and ... transparency is the absolute necessary in our political process because it encourages ideas, debates, facts, figures and, most importantly, good outcomes,” Fattman said Thursday afternoon. “The truth is when this process doesn’t happen, we can create unintended consequences that severely negatively impact people in our society.”
The sweeping reform bill, S.2800, came out of a racial justice working group Senate President Karen Spilka created in early June in response to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot during a police raid of her Louisville apartment, and George Floyd, a Black man whose neck was knelt on for nearly nine minutes by a Minneapolis police officer.
The bi-partisan working group was co-chaired by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and Senate President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat.
Spilka, Chang-Diaz and Brownsberger issued a joint statement Thursday night saying the Senate will stay focused on addressing systemic racism and violence.
“We know that these conversations are difficult, and the actions we’re called to take will not be easy, but it is our responsibility to begin to respond to the voices who have called on us to make these changes,” the statement reads. “We welcome further discussion on the very important provisions of this bill — and the right way to do that is to proceed with debate on the bill and its amendments.”
The move to table the bill drew criticism from Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues, who said several components of the omnibus bill had public hearings when they were filed as stand-alone bills.
“We took bits and pieces on many different ideas, and we did what we always do in the Senate: we tried to put together the best piece of legislation that we could,” the Westport Democrat said. “It’s disappointing that we’re not going to do the business that we were elected to do today. We know it’s hard. We know it’s difficult. It’s just going to be as difficult the next day.”
Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who served on the racial justice working group, defended the move to table the legislation, adding not all of the components have undergone a public hearing. Nor were they assigned to a committee.
“I would also suggest that when we put pieces of legislation together, we make the permutation that is in many ways often a new creation, and the interdependence of those pieces is often the subject of careful scrutiny and appropriate review, particularly through the process of a public hearing,” Tarr said.
Tarr said he feared tabling a bill is perceived as a legislator opposing it. Tarr, who said he has tabled more matters than other members, said he has never done so to be “counter-productive” or “an obstructionist” but to provide additional time to resolve solutions.
The recent officer-involved deaths of Black people have sparked protests across the country calling for reforms and police budget cuts.
Amid protests over police conduct, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, a police department in Massachusetts has come under scrutiny. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts’ report says the officers within the Springfield Police Department’s Narcotics Bureau unnecessarily punch suspects with closed fists and may have used excessive force in cases where people were not arrested, but that poor record-keeping made several allegations difficult to verify.
Lawmakers pledged action in the wake of recent officer-involved deaths of Black people, but the end of the two-year legislative session is approaching quickly. House and Senate members are looking at a July 20 deadline to pass a police reform bill, which would give the governor up to 10 days to review and sign the legislation into law. The Legislature, however, typically needs 10 business days to ensure they have time to override a potential veto, which would make the deadline July 17.
The omnibus bill released from the Senate Ways and Means Committee Sunday night would create a certification process for police officers, similar to Gov. Charlie Baker’s policing bill, but it also bars officers from shooting at fleeing vehicles, makes school resources officers optional and temporarily bans government use of facial recognition.
While Baker’s bill includes financial incentives for officers to conduct higher levels of training, the Senate bill proposes diverting funds from the Department of Correction as the prison population declines into a Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to disburse grants for employment opportunity programs.
The legislation spanned 72 pages and by the amendment deadline had racked up 145 amendments.
Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, applauded the variety of provisions in the bill, saying they would allow schools to hire councilors instead of school resource officers and empower advocates to push for a re-allocation of funds from the Department of Corrections budget to programs in housing or economic development. Some parameters, she said, would ease the burden on officers who are dealing with calls on substance use disorder, mental health and other issues.
“In our current system we ask far too much of police officers, asking them to be social workers and substance abuse experts,” Chang-Diaz said. “It’s an unfair burden on our officers. This bill is about asking the best of law enforcement and that means knowing they cannot be responsible for everything placed on their shoulders.”
Others in the BLLC, however, urge legislative leaders to prioritize on the caucus’ 10-point plan as the deadline to pass a reform bill in this session draws closer, according to a letter sent to Baker, Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
“Our caucus recognizes that we, you all included, are all receiving numerous requests to add additional provisions,” states a letter signed by Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat and chairman of the caucus. “While we may be supportive of some or parts of these requests, we find it necessary to explicitly reiterate that we are principally focused on the points above and see those points as the foundation and necessary baseline for any such bill.”
Chang-Diaz mentioned the names of Black people who have died in police encounters in recent years, Floyd and Taylor, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio.
“So many more names we don’t even know. I stand here with grief for their family,” she said. “We thank you today for not letting us turn away from your loss now. I also feel a tremendous amount of pride in this bill, in the work and collaboration and commitment to justice that brought us here.”
When Fattman spoke, said he was sorry to anyone who had faced police brutality or discrimination and that the Senate wants “a good policing reform bill that makes sense and is effective because your life matters.”
He also said Massachusetts law enforcement officers, among the best-trained in the nation, have caught flak for misconduct that has made headlines in other states. Law enforcement officials, he said, have expressed concerns that they did not get input on the Senate bill and that it is moving forward without a public hearing.
“We demand excellence from our men and women who were the badge, and it is unfair to say that Massachusetts law enforcement doesn’t rise to that excellence. They do,” Fattman said.
“We know, even now,” he added, “law enforcement wants to be part of the solution.”
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