Baker releases plan to decertify police for misconduct

Bill would standardize training, give public access to info on officers

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday filed a bill that would create a licensing system for police officers across the state and allow a board made up of members of law enforcement and the public to decertify, or fire, officers who engage in misconduct.

“This bill will create a more modern, more transparent, and more accountable system for law enforcement training,” Baker said at a State House press conference. “It will ensure men and women who cannot live up to the high standards we expect them to uphold do not stay on the force.”

Although the governor has had an internal working group studying the issue since last year, the timing of the announcement was spurred by national unrest over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat and long-time advocate for the black community, said activists “have been shouting, absolutely screaming in the wilderness” for action on such legislation for years. He applauded the governor for moving forward on the legislation before Floyd was killed. “He was willing to do this when no one else was. It’s just that simple,” Holmes said.

The representative said he hopes the “tidal wave” of calls for change prompted by Floyd’s death will allow the bill to finally pass.

Holmes said some have questioned the notion of giving more money to train and supervise police forces at a time when there are calls to defund them. But he said he wants better, not less, policing.

“Me, as a black man, when I get pulled over in Boston, I want a well-trained officer,” Holmes said. “Any one of them who pulls me over needs to make sure they have the appropriate training to understand my culture, who I am, and never again should I be sitting on a sidewalk with my arms behind my back and handcuffed while you search my car and I can’t see who you are. I want to know who you are.”

Baker’s bill would create a standardized certification program for police officers across the state and would require that certifications be renewed every three years, with officers meeting standard training requirements. Baker said this is similar to the type of credentialing needed in fields like medicine, education, or social work.

The certification system would be run by a new 14-member Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee, split evenly between law enforcement and civilian representatives. Seven of the members would be required to be persons of color. The seven-member law enforcement group would include the State Police commissioner and the heads of the MBTA and Boston police forces. The governor would appoint six of the civilian representatives and the attorney general would appoint one. The governor would appoint the chairman.

The bill would create a statewide database so an officer’s current and potentially future employer could see the officer’s training and conduct records. It would institute a standard background check for police officers, so an officer disciplined for misconduct in another state could not hide that when applying for a job in Massachusetts.

The public would also have online access to an officer’s certification status and confirmed misconduct infractions.

An officer would be automatically decertified for using a chokehold or excessive force; for a felony conviction; for falsifying or destroying evidence; accepting bribes; witness intimidation; filing a false police report; or conduct that would constitute a hate crime. An officer would also be decertified for failing to intervene if a fellow officer used excessive force.  The committee could use its discretion to pursue decertification based on a pattern of misbehavior or a misdemeanor conviction. The committee could issue other types of discipline, including a reprimand or suspension.

The bill would also provide financial incentives for officers who get additional training in such areas as foreign languages, domestic violence, sexual assault response, or de-escalation techniques.

Baker said the bill will create the ability “to separate those out who protect and serve from those who don’t.”

Currently, all but a handful of states have some form of a POST, or Peace Officer Standards and Training, system, which creates a centralized database for establishing and tracking police standards and training. The other states without one are Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and California.

While Massachusetts has strict standards for police training, it is up to each municipal department how to implement them, and there is no one ensuring that police departments actually offer the training. “Everybody with a badge and a gun needs to have the same level of training,” Holmes said.

Baker’s bill would cover municipal, state, transit, environmental, and campus police, but not correction officers.

The Legislature is scheduled to end formal sessions July 31, leaving little time for lawmakers to negotiate a major bill. Baker strongly urged legislators to pass the bill before the session ends.

“This really needs to get done in what is basically six weeks,” Baker said. “I really want to be able to stand this up in a relatively short period of time…l really think this is a moment.”

Advocates for the black and Latino communities described the bill as the beginning of a process. They called it a first step toward implementing 10 policies prioritized by the caucus to reduce police brutality and racism. “Were encouraged by today as a start in that right direction,” said Black and Latino Caucus chairman Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat. “Today is the beginning of some candid and uncomfortable conversations.”

Rep. Russell Holmes at a State House press conference announcing a bill dealing with police training and certification. (Pool photo by Pat Greenhouse of the Boston Globe)

The bill now goes to the Legislature. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has come out in support of creating an independent police certification commission and other reforms. Senate President Karen Spilka has created an advisory group on racial justice, co-led by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat who is the only senator in the Black and Latino caucus.

Holmes said members of the Black and Latino caucus would meet with Rep. Claire Cronin, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday, and they met with Spilka this past Monday.

The POST bill has been years in the making. Rep. David Viera, a former Barnstable County deputy sheriff and Republican, said he has been filing POST commission bills since 2013. He joined forces with Holmes in 2015.

“We’re at the point where we are not going to look at how to create POST. We are going to create POST,” Vieira said at an American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts briefing on Tuesday.

Roger Goldman, professor of law emeritus at Saint Louis University School of Law, has spent much of his career advocating for POST systems across the US. “Virtually every other profession and occupation that’s regulated in the state – cosmetologists, lawyers, doctors, you name it. I can’t think of any other profession or occupation in the state that doesn’t have a system for removing a licensee for serious misconduct,” said Goldman on Tuesday. “This is not rocket science.”

Jamarhl Crawford, founder of activist group Mass Police Reform, said a POST system is not a “silver bullet” for police reform, but he is hopeful it is a reform that can be accomplished now.

“The climate now is…I guess this is what people would call the come-to-Jesus moment, so where many of us who have been out shouting in the desert for years and years, and it has fallen on deaf ears or there’s been a reluctance and even a pushback for it,” Crawford said. “I think now, because of the time, there is a tidal wave that we have to be smart to ride in.”

Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, declined to comment on Baker’s bill, saying the association had not yet seen it. The State Police Association of Massachusetts, which represents state police troopers, issued a statement late in the day that said it “agrees with the concept and proposal for standardized training and certification, as well as advanced and specialized training throughout an officer’s career; we welcome the opportunity to review the details of the bill.”

Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Major City Chiefs of Police, said his group has been in favor of some kind of POST system for a decade. Kyes said the group will work with others toward a final version of the bill “that makes the most sense in terms of enhancing the professionalism of policing in this state in order to promote increased trust, confidence and a renewed spirit of cooperation with those that we so faithfully serve as well as ensuring ongoing accountability and transparency for the profession in general.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

A Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, made up of the state’s police unions, recently met with the Black and Latino Caucus. The two groups released a joint statement calling for several policy reforms, including the imposition of training standards and the accreditation of all law enforcement officers.

Gonzalez, the chair of the caucus, said he has heard no pushback from any police officer or union, but Baker said legislation of this sort is unlikely to pass without any opposition.