Sweeping police reform bill passes state Senate 30-7 in marathon overnight session

Sweeping police reform bill passes state Senate 30-7 in marathon overnight session
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The state Senate passed a police reform bill early Tuesday banning chokeholds, allowing the State Police leader to be chosen from outside the department, and clarifying a critical law some see as a barrier to change: qualified immunity for individual officers.

The sweeping measure also creates a Police Officers Standards and Accreditation Committee, an independent panel of police, community members, a retired judge, and social justice advocates to oversee certification, training, and decertification of police.

“The POSAC will receive all misconduct complaints, investigate complaints involving serious misconduct, and maintain a disclosure database. It will also prohibit nondisclosure agreements in police misconduct settlements and establish a commission to recommend a correctional officer certification, training, and decertification framework,‘’ according to a summary of the measure issued by Senate leaders.

In response to the overtime fraud scandal that enveloped the Massachusetts State Police, the measure would repeal a law that requires the department’s colonel be drawn from within the department and instead open selection to outside candidates.

A State Police cadet program would also be created as a means of increasing minority representation in the ranks of the statewide agency that patrols highways, conducts major criminal investigations, and responds to public safety issues on state property.

Senate President Karen Spilka tweeted about the final vote — 30 to 7 — around 5 a.m. Tuesday, marking the end of a marathon session that began Monday.

“There is no doubt that we are in a difficult moment, both nationally and in our Commonwealth, but I’m proud of the Senate for listening to calls for racial justice and beginning the difficult work of reducing institutionalized violence, shifting our focus and resources to communities that have historically been negatively impacted by aggressive policing, and introducing many creative ideas to build greater equity and fairness in our Commonwealth,” Spilka said in a statement.

According to a statement from Spilka, senators clarified — but left intact — the state’s qualified immunity law, which shelters individual officers from personal liability. The clarification states “the concept of qualified immunity will remain, as long as a public official, including law enforcement, is acting in accordance with the law. The bill also makes clear that nothing in this bill impacts or limits existing indemnification protections for public officials,‘’ Spilka’s office said in a statement.

Police unions, along with Latino and Black police officer groups, had pressed the Legislature to avoid a full-scale revocation of the law while some social justice advocates contended it is a critical barrier to change.

Senators voted on — or set aside — a total of 146 amendments as the Democratic-led Senate responded to the national call for change in policing in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who helped lead a working group on racial justice, said in a statement that the measure marks a historic change for Massachusetts’ communities of color.

“This bill is a vital step towards a new vision of public safety: one that’s built on accountability, de-escalation, and care,” said the Jamaica Plain Democrat. “It begins the long, necessary work of shifting power and resources to Black communities and communities of color who have, for too long, faced criminalization and punishment instead of investment.”

Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, said that “we have lots of wonderful police officers, and I am grateful for their service. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the problems that do exist in the state which have been so recently documented by the United States Department of Justice. Nor should we pretend that those problems are the only problems in the state.”

Brownsberger’s reference to the Department of Justice was a reference to an investigation into the Springfield Police Department that found a pattern of using excessive force.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker has filed legislation to create a system for licensing police officers and stripping them of their certification for misconduct. Democratic House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo is committed to passing a bill, but DeLeo said Monday it won’t come before the House holds a public hearing, perhaps as early as this week.

Before it began in earnest Monday, debate in the Senate was delayed on three successive days by Republican Senator Ryan C. Fattman, who used parliamentary tactics to table the bill while criticizing what he said was its rushed passage.

But the Senate ultimately moved forward on the measure.

Among other major changes, the bill:

– Requires civilian oversight and prior approval before military-style hardware is purchased for department armories.

– Calls for school superintendents, not police chiefs, to decide whether school resource officers will be deployed inside schools.

– Bars school systems from sharing student information with police except during a criminal investigation or “to stop imminent harm.”

– Creates the Strong Communities and Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to use money from police and prison budgets to issue “competitive grants to drive economic opportunities in communities most impacted by excessive policing and mass incarceration.” Many activists have called for defunding police departments and redirecting the funds to social improvement programs.

– Allows juveniles with more than one offense on their criminal histories to seek expungement.

– Mandates the collection of racial data on people stopped by police, while banning racial profiling.

– Creates an African-American Commission and a Latinx Commission (an Asian-American Commission already exists) “to bring more underrepresented voices to the table and ensure equity in policymaking.”

– Bans a police officer who is decertified from becoming a correctional officer.

– Imposes a moratorium on the use of facial surveillance technology while a commission looks into the use of what critics see as an invasion of privacy.

– Creates a task force to study the use of body and dashboard cameras, which are in wide use by police in other states but have been deployed in limited fashion in Massachusetts.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz’s position on the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. She is the Senate vice-chair.


John R. Ellement can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.





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