With police reform bill in limbo, some experts say more needs to be done in Massachusetts

police car at street
Police reform measures are proposed in the Massachusetts Senate. Photo by Matt Popovich/Wikimedia Commons

By Haley Lerner
BU News Service

BOSTON – The future of the Massachusetts police reform bill is in limbo as the State Senate considers Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed amendments, including the removal of a proposed partial ban on the use of facial recognition systems by police.

On Dec. 14, Baker officially recommended his revisions to the police reform bill S. 2963 to the Senate, in which he declared he would not sign a bill banning police from using facial recognition software. He also said the development of police training programs should be managed by law enforcement personnel, not a civilian-controlled commission. 

The revisions loom with the threat of a veto from Baker, which would force the Legislature to revisit the issue of police reform in the next session on Jan. 6. 

The bill was passed on Dec. 1 by both the Massachusetts House and Senate after months of deliberation in the wake of nationwide protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.  

Besides the facial recognition ban, the bill originally proposed the creation of a new commission to certify police officers and implement training standards statewide; investigations into body camera regulations and institutional racism; the review of hiring practices; stronger regulations for the use of force; and the removal of the requirement that schools have police officers.  

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he thinks the bill is a “strong first step.” However, he disagrees with Baker’s decision to remove provisions that aimed to protect residents from unregulated police use of face surveillance technology, which he said is often “racially biased.” He hopes the House and Senate will restore those measures before the final bill is sent to Baker. 

Hall said the most prominent aspect of the bill is that it creates a police certification commission. 

“Massachusetts was only one of four states that did not have one of these certification commissions,” he said. “What was included in the bill stood to make the Massachusetts commission probably one of the strongest in the country and so we’re glad to see that that is in there.”

He also said the bill does not fully address the issue of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police from civil liability in court when accused of violating someone’s rights. Currently, the bill proposes a change that an officer only loses their immunity if they are decertified by the state. 

“The reforms that were included in this bill don’t go nearly far enough,” Hall said. “But there is a study commissioned to look at qualified immunity and so we have an expectation that people with the legal background and perspectives of the communities that are most directly impacted by violent and aggressive policing are on that committee.”

Beyond police reform, Hall said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the deep rooted racial injustices that exist in the country.

“I think there is a deep well of racial injustice that exists in this country that feeds the way that policing happens,” he said. “It feeds the way discipline happens in schools, it feeds the segregation of the cities that we live in.”

Hall said it is important to recognize that Massachusetts is no exception to nationwide issues of police brutality, which the ACLU Massachusetts highlights in its “Police Violence Happens Here” campaign. 

Sophia Hall, a supervising attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, said she hoped the bill would make the commonwealth a leader in police reform nationwide, but instead feels that it isn’t as extensive as it needs to be. 

“People think this is a progressive state, which I disagree with,” she said. “I think that’s a myth that we all need to sort of wipe away and remove from our minds because I think it’s a good excuse for people to feel like they don’t need to do more work. They don’t need to make more changes or push the envelope any further because we’ve already come so far.”

She said this “myth of progressivism” allows many long term incumbent politicians to not take risks with ambitious police reform initiatives, especially if they did not realize that the movement for police reform began years before the killing of George Floyd.

“We have a lot of decision makers who don’t have the lived experience of Black people or Black communities,” she said. “They don’t know how deeply entrenched these wounds are between our communities and law enforcement.”

Hall also said it is important to recognize that many fatal outcomes of police interactions aren’t just a result of race, but other factors including gender and mental health.

“People with disability status, that layer of their identity plays a significant role in what sort of encounters end up with the victim surviving and which ones end up with the victims dying,” she said. 

She said she hopes Boston could provide services other than police action for when someone decides to dial 911.    

“We should be reallocating resources in a way that matches our values and our values should be to make sure we’re protecting the most vulnerable and to make sure that our law enforcement agencies are as efficient as possible,” Hall said. “And so it might be reallocating those funds to create some real comprehensive programming, training and policies around what we do about law enforcement and people living with disabilities.”

Local actors need to work to address the many problems that disproportionately affect communities of color, including the public education system, wealth inequity and health care, Hall said.

“There isn’t one problem,” she said. “We’re on a sinking boat that has a bunch of leaks and there is no way to say that one leak is more important than the other.”

She said it’s important that law enforcement officers are held accountable for misconduct and that hiring processes are diverse. 

“Who gets these complaints written up against them? How are they reviewed? How are they handled? Who gets a slap on the wrist versus who gets fired? You know, is that happening in an equitable way?” Hall said. 

While racial justice advocates say the bill is only a first step towards reforming the police, law enforcement organizations have voiced their concerns about the legislation. 

The State Police Association of Massachusetts said in a statement on Nov. 30 that they “welcome reform that will actually improve policing” but think the legislation “misses the mark.”

“The bill creates layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and costly commissions staffed by political appointees with no real world experience in policing and the dangers officers face every day,” SPAM said in the statement. “We urge the members of the Legislature to reject this bill and begin anew in 2021.”

In a letter to members on December 1, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police said the bill is a “final attack on police officers by lawmakers on Beacon Hill.” The coalition states that while they “support smart and productive police reforms” to “address the challenges and historic biases experienced by people of color and people with disabilities,” they believe the bill aims to punish police for being police.

“The bill as written simply goes too far in micromanaging police operations and establishing new protocols that will create dangerous situations and bring harm to not only police officers on the job, but to the public as well, and it does all this motivated by incidents of police violence in other states, not Massachusetts,” the MassCOP letter states.

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of law enforcement officials and others dedicated to improving the professionalism of policing, said there needs to be national standards when it comes to police policy, as the lack of them makes it harder for states to make effective legislation. 

“Too often I think when people look at reforms they look at banning certain practices,” Wexler said. “And I think we really have to take a broader look and say how can we create policies that tell officers what they should be doing, as opposed to simply telling them what they shouldn’t be doing.”

He said states should focus on prevention instead of oversight by investing in more diverse hiring processes and extensive training programs regarding the use of force.

“One of the things that Massachusetts should be doing is really stepping back and saying how do we invest in the front end, how do we invest in the hiring practices, in the training practices, in those kinds of issues so that you’re hiring the right people, you’re training them in the best way,” he said. “That’s a much better investment than on the back end, where so much of the reform has been focused just on oversight.”

Wexler said police need to create trust in the communities they work in, such as by wearing body cameras and releasing information on their websites that clearly explains when force was used, what officers were involved and why the incident happened. 

“Those are the kind of things cities around the country have done to give the sense that the police want to be transparent and provide the information as quickly as possible,” he said. 

Baker’s suggested revisions are now in the hands of the Senate’s Third Reading Committee, chaired by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett.

This article was originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.