Here’s the police reform bill the ACLU wants

Immunity for law enforcement officers must end

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, people have been taking to the streets to protest against police brutality and systemic racism. In some states, their calls for change have been met by even more brutality. Here in Massachusetts, lawmakers have responded with proposals and promises to embark on a path toward racial justice and police accountability.

In order to achieve meaningful reform in Massachusetts, the final compromise bill—produced by a six-member Conference Committee—must end immunity for law enforcement officers who violate the law and harm civilians, establish a strong police licensing system, ban police use of face surveillance technology, and invest in communities.

Massachusetts is not immune to police misconduct. Consider Springfield, Athol, and Brighton, among the many communities with documented instances of police officers hurting people with fists, tasers, and force. The House bill would prohibit no-knock warrants if children or seniors are in the home, and both the House and Senate bills aim to protect people from tactics like chokeholds, tear gas, rubber bullets, and attack dogs. These are commonsense reforms, and should be included in the final compromise bill.

But use of force laws are meaningless if people and courts can’t hold police accountable when they break those laws. That’s why the final bill must close loopholes in our state civil rights law, including limits on qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that bars victims of police abuse from seeking justice in the courts and shields police officers from consequences for illegal conduct.

Because of qualified immunity, victims of police violence cannot seek redress in the courts unless they can first prove that the law has already been “clearly established” that the conduct was unlawful, meaning a constitution violation alone does not entitle a victim to relief.

The result: victims of police misconduct end up bearing the full cost of their abuse, paying for their own hospital and medical care, physical therapy, and even funerals.

In addition, under current Massachusetts law, victims of injustice cannot succeed in a lawsuit against a police officer unless they can also prove their rights were violated by “threats, intimidation, or coercion.”  In practice, that means that when police officer punch, kick, choke, or shoot people—without also engaging in “threats, intimidation, or coercion”—the officer cannot be held accountable under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

These injustices in the current system must not be allowed to stand. House and Senate conferees must keep Section 10 of the Senate bill. Doing so removes barriers to justice for victims.

Structural reform also means that Massachusetts must establish a police licensing system to increase professional policing and enable the decertification of officers who engage in serious misconduct. Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial proposal would create a commission with the ability to decertify police officers who abuse people and their power, preventing them from being rehired.

The final bill must ensure that any licensing commission has the power to open an investigation without setting needless barriers, and should not set excessively high evidentiary standards for suspending or revoking an officer’s certification. Baker’s original bill gets it right, allowing investigations to be opened when the allegations, if proven, would result in decertification and adopting a “preponderance of the evidence” standard for decertifying an officer who, following an investigation, is found to have committed misconduct.

To effectively address police abuses and systemic racism, we must also address the tools that exacerbate those long-standing crises, including face surveillance technology. Face surveillance tracking supercharges the policing of black and brown communities and tramples on everyone’s rights to anonymity and privacy. In the last two months alone, we have learned about two cases of black men wrongfully arrested and charged on the basis of faulty, racially biased facial recognition technology. These cases happened in Detroit, where the chief of police recently acknowledged the technology fails to accurately identify people 96 percent of the time, and that it is used almost exclusively to monitor black people. We shouldn’t allow such technology to be deployed against the people of Massachusetts.

Local municipal bans on face surveillance tracking in Massachusetts now protect more than 1 million Massachusetts residents, but all people in the Commonwealth deserve this protection. As set out in Section 25 of the House bill, Massachusetts must pass permanent, statewide protections against government use of face surveillance.

Finally, it is time to divest from law enforcement and invest in the black and brown communities they unjustly target. Spending on police and the criminal legal system has dramatically outpaced expenditures in community-based services that help people build stable, safe communities. Massachusetts has an obligation to change this paradigm.

Section 37 of the Senate bill would establish a Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to create opportunities for job training, job creation, and job placement to strengthen communities that suffer from high rates of poverty, underemployment, lack of education, or criminal legal involvement. “Justice Reinvestment” is the sole piece of either bill that directly addresses the need to invest in communities that bear the brunt of injustices related to criminalization and over-policing, and it must be part of the final compromise bill.

Meet the Author

Carol Rose

Guest Contributor

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

About Carol Rose

Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

This moment in history requires transformational change—and Massachusetts has the duty and responsibility to meet the moment. A final compromise bill that includes the above provisions will be an important step on the road to justice. Legislative leaders themselves have acknowledged that this will be a long road. But Beacon Hill can and must seize this moment to pass meaningful legislation to address past violence and prevent future harms.

Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.