In police licensing, the details matter
System must have transparency, public accountability
THE POLICE KILLINGS of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and other black people have brought renewed, international attention to racism in law enforcement. Thankfully, Massachusetts elected leaders have taken note, and have already proposed some crucial reforms that could make it possible to hold police accountable—to some extent—for misconduct.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he would file legislation to establish a Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) program in Massachusetts. The proposal would create a committee with the power to decertify police officers who commit acts of abuse, preventing them from being rehired.
Massachusetts is one of only four states that do not license police officers. Yet the Commonwealth requires professional licensure for over 150 other trades and professions, including barbers, plumbers, and many others. Unlike these licensed professions, police are empowered to carry deadly weapons, take away people’s liberty, and even kill civilians, often without professional repercussions, let alone civil or criminal liability. Even when officers are suspended or fired for misconduct, they are frequently rehired by the same or other departments.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree: The need for POST is self-evident. Massachusetts cannot continue to be a haven for police officers who fail to meet basic standards of professionalism and accountability.
First, although the POST committee would include both police and civilian members, under the current proposal they would all be appointed by the governor. Therefore, we would need to ensure that committee decisions aren’t tainted by politics, and that decertification proceedings don’t favor the police by default. Civilian appointees should include representatives from police accountability, civil rights, and civil liberties organizations, and as well as representatives from over-policed communities. Getting this right means having the right people at the table.
Second, transparency and reporting—both from police departments and from the entities established to oversee them—are essential. Currently, although the bill makes the contents of the decertification database subject to public records law, and provides some reporting requirements, there are no penalties for police departments that fail to report this information. Data are indispensable in the campaign for racial equity; reforms are meaningless if we can’t verify their implementation.
Third, the POST committee needs to have the explicit authority to initiate investigations or begin proceedings based on all credible information—not simply that which police departments disclose. Left to their own devices, police departments may drag their feet or even cover up evidence of officer misconduct, rendering the committee toothless in cases of obvious malfeasance. If we’ve learned anything from decades of police killings, it’s that we can’t expect departments to police themselves.
The committee should likewise hold officers to the highest possible standard. The bill specifies several offenses that would result in mandatory decertification, but we should not treat this list as exhaustive. Not every act or pattern of abuse will rise to the level of a national scandal, but that’s no excuse for the committee to let offending officers off the hook for misconduct. Corruption should be nipped in the bud.
Fourth, a strong POST bill will ensure that all law enforcement officers—not just the police—are held to the same standard. The governor’s proposal currently excludes corrections officers, who wield the power of life and death over incarcerated people, especially in a pandemic. We should not allow abuses in our prisons and jails to go unchecked.
Finally—perhaps most crucially—POST is not a panacea. There is so much more that lawmakers must do to bring about the deep systemic change needed for policing in Massachusetts.
Rep. Liz Miranda and Sen. Cindy Creem have introduced a bill, “An Act Relative to Saving Black Lives,” with a robust series of police practice reforms, including a ban on chokeholds, tear gas, excessive force, and no-knock warrants. This is not about simply restricting the use of a particular tactic; this is about saving lives.
POST, by itself, will not fix a policing system that for generations has oppressed and killed black people. Ultimately, we must completely change the role of police in our society and divest from violent enforcement agencies. Instead, we must invest in social supports that will afford black communities equal access to resources that successive governments have deliberately withheld.No matter the shape of policing in the future, however, there is no question that officers should be held to exceptionally high standards. A POST system is a welcome first step, but we cannot stop there on the long road toward justice.
Carol Rose is the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.