Senate must not back down on police reform bill

Changes to qualified immunity protections are long overdue


THE POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY and racial justice legislation being debated by the state Senate has been held up over several days by a few, with loud voices, who feel that it goes too far in upsetting the status quo. I would argue, however, that the status quo has the potential to usher in further loss of life and further insult to the dignity of black and brown citizens of our Commonwealth. And we have waited much too long already.

The conscience of the Commonwealth’s citizens demands that we take this moment to begin a process to right the wrong caused by a lack of police accountability and denial of racial justice. According to a recent Suffolk University poll, a huge share of Massachusetts citizens believe that we must act now on these issues. At the same time, we fully acknowledge that protecting the lives of black and brown citizens should never be dependent on public opinion – it is the duty of our political leaders to create a safe, equitable and just Commonwealth for us all. The Senate is moving forward on this issue, advancing the American promise of equal justice – which is long overdue. It is an infuriating insult to ask those of us who have been denied the basic rights of a just society to wait a moment longer.

A central sticking point in the path forward is the issue of qualified immunity, which limits police officers’ liability in civil cases alleging wrongdoing. The bill before the Senate would not end qualified immunity, but simply limits it. The intent of the legislation is to recalibrate and provide balance with respect to qualified immunity for civil rights claims. Under this bill, if an officer violates an individual’s civil or constitutional rights, he or she would no longer be able to use qualified immunity as a defense. This change is a reasonable adjustment to any standard of reasonable accountability for those who have been given the extraordinary powers to protect and serve.

Change is never easy, nor is it comfortable for those who hold privilege at the expense of others.  However, it is the duty of those elected to lead to clear the path for right, fairness and justice.  I ask that those elected to lead do just that – lead.

Juan Cofield is president of the NAACP, New England Area Conference.