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Lawmakers agree on police reform legislation

Bill seen as milestone in years-long fight for change

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Lawmakers agree on police reform legislation
Lawmakers on a joint committee approved a comprehensive set of police reforms Monday afternoon. BANNER PHOTO

House and Senate members this week approved a criminal justice reform bill that will create a statewide commission empowered to set standards for the certification of police in Massachusetts, investigate allegations of misconduct and decertify officers who have engaged in serious misconduct.

The legislation, agreed on by a House and Senate conference committee Monday afternoon, would also strip officers who have been decertified of qualified immunity protection against civil lawsuits, but would maintain that protection for certified officers. A bill to end qualified immunity was sent to a special commission for study after months of lobbying by police unions opposed to the measure.

The bill, called An Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth, bans no-knock warrants in cases when children or persons over 65 are present in a dwelling and imposes limits on police use of force, including tear gas and other crowd control measures.

The bill bans police departments from engaging in racial profiling and directs the attorney general to bring a civil action to enforce the ban.

The legislation comes after years of advocacy by members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and community activists who have pushed for criminal justice reforms.

“We won everything that the Black and Latino Caucus demanded,” said Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, chairman of the caucus. “This is landmark legislation that will address many of the concerns that communities of color have expressed for years.”

The conference committee approval comes nearly four months after lawmakers’ July 31 targeted deadline for the legislation.

Senate President Karen Spilka said the legislation provides a good foundation for future criminal justice reforms.

“While there is still much work to be done, we are proud of the foundation laid by this bill as we continue to build toward racial justice and equity,” she said in a press statement.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said the bill delivers an unprecedented level of police oversight.

“This final bill scores meaningful wins for accountability, civilian oversight from communities of color, and a vision of public safety that prioritizes de-escalation over force,” she said in a statement sent to news media. “This is the first time any state has combined this kind of real oversight authority with significant community membership at the table of power.”

Certification standards

The statewide commission created by the legislation, the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, will establish standards for police officer certification and make decisions on de-certifying officers who engage in serious misconduct. Three of the commission members are to be appointed by the governor, three appointed by the attorney general and three appointed jointly by the two.

Of those appointed, three are to be current or retired police officers, one a social worker and one a retired justice of the Superior Court. Groups including the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) will nominate members.

Use of force

The bill bans chokeholds and prohibits officers from using physical force without first attempting de-escalation tactics. Officers may use force to restrain a suspect only if necessary to effect a lawful arrest, prevent flight or prevent harm to others.

An officer may use deadly force only after de-escalation tactics have been attempted and failed. Officers are prohibited from firing into or at a fleeing motor vehicle unless it is necessary to prevent imminent harm.

Officers may not use tear gas or rubber-coated steel pellets unless de-escalation tactics have been attempted or if necessary to prevent imminent harm and if the harm inflicted by tear gas or so-called rubber bullets is proportionate to that imminent harm.

An officer witnessing another officer using force “beyond that which is necessary or objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances” is required to intervene and report such instances to a supervisor.

Special commissions

Other provisions of the bill include the creation of a special commission to review the Civil Service system, which administers the test for admittance to police academies and sets standards on hiring and promotion in departments. The legislative commission will make recommendations for changes to improve diversity and increase transparency in recruitment and hiring of officers who are hired under civil service and those who are not.

The legislation also establishes commissions to study structural racism in corrections facilities, in the parole process and in the probation system.

Other provisions

Under the bill, officers who knowingly submit false time sheets will be required to pay three times the amount of fraudulent wages paid and face imprisonment of up to two years. The bill bans officers from having sexual intercourse with persons in police custody and bans public agencies other than the Registry of Motor Vehicles from using facial recognition software.

The bill, which appears to have the support of House and Senate leadership, will next go to both chambers for a vote. If approved, it will go before Gov. Charlie Baker.