Compromise police reform bill reported out

Bill punts issue of qualified police immunity to commission

AFTER FOUR MONTHS of closed-door negotiations, six members of the House and Senate reported out compromise police reform legislation on Monday that establishes a certification system for officers and punts the contentious issue of immunity to a special legislative commission.

The bill released by a House-Senate conference committee would create a civilian-led Peace Officer Standards and Training commission that will establish standards for police, investigate misconduct claims, and decertify officers found in violation.

The proposed legislation bars the use of deadly force unless all de-escalation tactics have been used and failed. Chokeholds, similar to what killed Eric Garner in 2014, and restraining of the neck are prohibited. The legislation also requires that, if an officer witnesses another using deadly force improperly, he or she is required to intervene.

The new commission would have the power to issue subpoenas as part of its investigations and all decisions will be open to the public and shared with a national database of decertified police officers. The nine-member commission would be made up of three appointees of the governor, three of the attorney general, and three joint appointments of the governor and attorney general.

The bill also creates a new civil service commission to explore ways to increase diversity among police forces statewide, ends the requirement that school districts employ school police officers, limits the release of information from schools to police departments, and promotes a series of non-police crisis response and jail diversion initiatives.

The conference committee punted on the most contentious issue facing it – the House bill did not limit an officer’s immunity from civil lawsuits unless he or she had been decertified, while the Senate’s bill narrowed the level of immunity available to all public employees covered by the legal doctrine. The conference bill adopted the House language but bumped the broader debate to a  15-member commission that is required to report back with its findings and any proposed legislation by September 30.

The commission would include five lawmakers, three appointees of Gov. Charlie Baker, two members of police and firefighters’ unions, a retired justice of the appeals court, and four members representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and the New England chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield, the chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and a member of the conference committee, said the legislation reflects the caucus’s agenda. As for why the issue of qualified immunity was referred to a special commission, he said: “I think qualified immunity is one piece that has been addressed and will be further reviewed to continue to see if any other changes need to happen.”

Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, and Sen. Will Brownsberger delivered their committee’s compromise policing reform bill to Senate Clerk Michael Hurley around 5 p.m. Monday. (Photo by Sam Doran of State House News Service).

In October, MassCOP, the largest law enforcement union in the state, sent a letter to legislators claiming that qualified immunity “does not shield officers from criminal prosecution from wrongdoing. What it does allow is police officers the right to act in good faith in their jobs without fearing that each potentially lifesaving decision could lead to a civil lawsuit.”

The union said it approved of a ban on chokeholds and the creation of an independent body to oversee police department best practices. The conference committee met with the Boston Patrolman’s Association and a State Police union during its negotiations.

The compromise bill will now go to the House and Senate for up-or-down votes and, if it passes both branches, to Baker, who has shown a willingness to sign police reform legislation. The House plans to meet to vote on the bill on Tuesday.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka heralded the new bill, called an “Act Relative to Justice, Equity, and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” as “one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform and racial justice in the US since the tragic murder of George Floyd.”

In addition to Gonzalez, the other Democrats on the conference committee were Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Jamaica Plain, and Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont. The two Republican members were Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and Rep. Timothy Whelan of Brewster, who had voted against the original House version of the bill.

Chang-Diaz, who lauded the school resource officer changes on Twitter, later said the bill as a whole “scores meaningful wins for accountability, civilian oversight from communities of color, and a vision of public safety that prioritizes de-escalation over force,” in an emailed statement.

All four Democrats signed the conference committee report, while the two Republicans did not sign it. Tarr told State House News Service that he was still reading the bill after first seeing it “a short time ago.”

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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.

The 129-page bill also includes other tenets. Among those are several permanent commissions on the status of African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, and black men and boys.

Another committee would be established to oversee training of school resource officers, in the event that schools continue to employ them. Those committee members would focus on educating officers on the legal standards around interactions with youth and children with trauma and mental illness. The body will also investigate youth hate crimes and ways to prevent them.