Senate approves Baker’s amendment, sends policing bill to House

Drops facial recognition software ban, gives law enforcement officials more control over training

THE MASSACHUSETTS Senate passed an amended version of police reform legislation on Monday that gives Gov. Charlie Baker most of the changes he sought on law enforcement training and the use of facial recognition technology.

After a  31-9 vote, the bill now moves to the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated he will take immediate action in the next day or so.

Baker sent the original policing reform bill back to the Senate with amendments 11 days ago urging lawmakers to compromise on police use of facial recognition technology and putting law enforcement rather than civilian officials in charge of police training. Baker threatened to veto the entire measure if lawmakers refused.

Senate leaders on Monday said they were willing to compromise, adopting only a partial ban on the use of facial recognition software and keeping law enforcement officials in charge of police training, which Baker wanted.

The no votes came from Republican senators Ryan Fattman, Patrick O’Connor, and Dean Tran, and Democrats John Velis, Anne Gobi, Michael Moore, Michael Rush, James Welch, and Walter Timilty.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr unsuccessfully defended amendments to cut no-knock warrant restrictions, and limit the powers of the POST commission. Despite the losses Tarr voted in favor of sending the bill to the House.

The new Senate language allows Baker’s language around keeping law enforcement training under the jurisdiction of the municipal police training committee, which is overseen by the Executive office of Public Safety and Security, instead of the civilian-run Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission that continues to be an agreed upon tenet.

A new committee called the Division of Police Certification, and the municipal police training committee will weigh in on the standards and trainings officers much reach and complete to be certified.

Under the latest amendment, five chiefs of police will be appointed by the governor from nominations submitted by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police, one of which would have to be a member of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority transit police force.

Others members would include Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, Massachusetts State Police Colonel Christopher Mason, Attorney General Maura Healey, the president of the Massachusetts Association of Women in Law Enforcement, the head of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, two sheriffs, and others.

The secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security would accept nominations for a chair and make the final decision.

There would be a total of 15 members and they would each serve three-year terms.

The purpose of the group would remain the same as the original bill language envisioned, creating a curriculum for police schools encompassing training in anti-racism and cultural competency, sexual and domestic abuse, hate crimes, conflict de-escalation tactics, and proper interactions between school resource officers and youth.

The Senate softened the language significantly by gutting the sweeping facial recognition software use ban, and instead creating a partial ban through regulations.

Law enforcement performing or requesting a facial recognition search using facial recognition technology would need to submit a written request to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the State Police, or the FBI.

The amended bill provides broad allowances for law enforcement agencies to perform facial recognition searches, including to execute a court-issued order or warrant, to identify a deceased person, or if “the law enforcement agency reasonably believes that an emergency involving substantial risk of harm to any individual or group of people requires the performance of a facial recognition search without delay.”

Emergency requests will be allowed, but the Senate language said those would be “narrowly tailored to address the emergency and shall document the factual basis for believing that an emergency requires the performance of a facial recognition search without delay.”

Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who took part in the conference committee negotiating the reform bill, decried the losses in the bill, including limits on qualified immunity for law enforcement, restrictions on the purchasing of military grade equipment by police departments, and legally binding definitions to constrain the use of force by police.

“It was especially heart-breaking to reach the turning point of getting a bill to the governor’s desk that already included so much compromise on the part of communities of color, and to have it returned with still more refusals to take power away from those who’ve had too much for too long,” she said in a floor speech.

But the bill moves the needle significantly on police accountability with historical reforms, Chang- Diaz said, which included restrictions on no-knock warrants, ban on choke holds, changes in the sharing of information between schools and police departments, and a ban on racial profiling.

“It will establish the most genuinely powerful, civilian-controlled police oversight and decertification board in the nation,” Chang-Diaz said after the vote in an email, adding that she hopes it will have nationwide reverberations. She said many of the changes were “unthinkable” in the state’s political landscape just 12 months ago. But the death of George Floyd, a black man killed under the boot of a Minneapolis police officer, changed the conversation.

Addressing the thousands of people who protested Floyd’s death over the summer, demanding systemic changes, Chang-Diaz said this on the floor: “When we put this bill back on the governor’s desk, and when you call him to sign it, I hope you will celebrate. Celebrate the changes you have cried, sweat, bled into being and the way that you’re re-shaping the national policy landscape.”

Senate leadership also lauded the bill’s anticipated passage earlier in the day.

“The version of the bill we will be voting on today takes into account the priorities expressed by people of color, including the development of use-of-force standards and the limitation of facial recognition technology, while also striking a balance amongst all involved to ensure this landmark bill becomes law” said Senate President Karen Spilka in an emailed statement before the vote.

The House is expected to take up the police reform legislation in the next two days.

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.

“At this point, we are in the homestretch,” said Belmont Sen. Will Brownsberger, co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “I am very hopeful that we will cross the finish line, because I see that all of the key leaders — the Senate President, the Speaker and the Governor feel strongly that this historic bill needs to get done.”

After the vote, Baker’s office said he will sign the police reform bill as it stands, adding that the Senate’s proposal reflects his amendments. “After discussing the governor’s amendments with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the Administration believes this package addresses the issues identified by the Governor’s amendments and he looks forward to signing this version should it reach his desk,” said communications director Lizzy Guyton.