By Ariane Vigna
Boston University News Service
BOSTON – The policing reform bill approved by legislators could put law enforcement lives in jeopardy, said Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, reflecting on efforts to increase oversight of police officers in the wake of last year’s death of George Floyd.
The bill, signed by Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 31, bans chokeholds, limits no-knock warrants, creates a mandatory statewide certification process for police officers and requires them to attempt de-escalation tactics. It has drawn opposition from police unions but gained support as residents seek to address police violence and racial injustice.
Moore, who had a 22-year law enforcement career, said he is concerned with the structure of the new Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, as well as the restrictions on no-knock warrants.
Moore and his Democratic colleague Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, voted against the bill.
“We’re looking to make sure we’re protecting the public from excessive use of force,” Moore said. “There is evidence that some officers — not all — may have been looking at their responsibilities through a lens of racial discrimination. They should be held accountable, but at the same time, we don’t want to leave law enforcement in a situation where their lives are in danger.”
Addressing police violence and its disproportionate impact on communities of color became a priority for the Statehouse after the killing of Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last summer.
But Moore said the newly independent state entity, which will have the power to investigate allegations of misconduct and suspend or revoke officers’ certification, is “unfair” to police because it can only have three members with a law enforcement background.
Among its nine members, the commission will include a nominee of the civil rights and social justice section council of the Massachusetts Bar Association and one member from a list submitted by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
“This commission is skewed,” Moore said. “This is no disrespect to anyone, but I don’t understand how a social worker can evaluate the response of a police officer. It’s almost like me being put on a medical board, and I have to critique whether a surgeon did something appropriate.”
However, Moore realizes that there are instances in which an individual in law enforcement is blatantly wrong.
“There are cases where someone’s conduct is so egregious that it’s obviously wrong,” Moore said. “But when we’re not at the scene, it’s easy to say that the officer should have done something different. Officers have to make split-second decisions, and we all have the luxury of sitting back and reviewing their conduct.”
Moore said the bill’s limits on no-knock warrants, including a ban on their use if a child is known to be in the home where the warrant is being executed, could also put both officers and civilians at risk.
“This could add an incentive for people who are dealing drugs to have children in these places so that police cannot serve these types of warrants,” Moore said.
The bill also bans the use of chokeholds and requires the use of de-escalation tactics before physical force. It establishes limits on the use of rubber bullets, chemical agents and canine units against crowds as well. Moore said that the Capitol insurrection showed that officers should be allowed to use tear gas.
“Washington police were using techniques that my colleagues were trying to ban,” he said. “If we ban these techniques in Massachusetts, what would police use if this was happening in the Statehouse? You leave officers using their firearms and that’s not the intent of it.”
Moore said he relied on his professional experience in examining the legislation. The input he received “from both sides” also played a part in his decision-making, meeting with police representatives and social justice organizers and taking into account emails from his constituents – most of whom opposed the bill.
Police chiefs from Worcester, Auburn and Grafton, as well as minority law enforcement associations, reached out to discuss the bill. Moore also met Isabel Gonzalez-Webster, executive director of Worcester Interfaith, an organization that brings people of faith together to fight for racial justice.
Moore said police representatives were concerned about the POST Commission’s potential impact on existing institutions and services.
“Before the passing of this bill, a police officer who got disciplined by his department had the option of going to civil service or mediation,” Moore said. “The decision could be upheld or overturned. We created a system where if you get disciplined — and the civil service says the termination was too strict — the commission could now argue that this officer should, in fact, lose their certification. The two could contradict each other.”
This article was previously published in the Telegram and Gazette.