Mass. Senate Approves Policing Reform After Overnight Session

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Matt Murphy

The Senate overcame a difficult rollout and several false starts to pass a reform of policing in Massachusetts on Tuesday that would ban chokeholds, limit the use of tear gas, license all law enforcement officers and train them in the history of racism.

The vote in the upper chamber now shifts the focus of the debate over racism and policing to the House with just weeks left to finalize a bill that has vaulted to the top of the Legislature’s end-of-session agenda.

The Senate bill, which was developed after weeks of public protest around the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, would impose a new level of oversight on police that has been proposed for years on Beacon Hill, but has failed to gain traction until now.

It would also controversially scale back a legal protection for police and other public employees that currently shields them from civil lawsuits unless there was a clearly established violation of law. Democratic leaders, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, weighed in to support the effort of Senate leaders to limit qualified immunity, while the state’s largest police union singled out that provision as one that would leave police officers second-guessing themselves on the job.

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The Senate passed the bill 30-7 just after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, after a long day of debate and an overnight session that spanned more than 17 hours. Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Nick Collins of Boston, Anne Gobi of Spencer, Michael Rush of Boston, John Velis of Westfield and Michael Moore of Millbury. They were joined in opposition by Republican Sens. Ryan Fattman of Sutton and Dean Tran of Fitchburg.

Senate Minority Leaders Bruce Tarr, Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, and Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat, voted present.

Some senators offered sharp criticism of the process used to develop the bill, while others engaged in a spirited back-and-forth over the legal principles of qualified immunity and the need the act “urgently” to protect Black and other minority residents from discrimination.

“No one is saying that we don’t support our cops,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, responding to critics who said the bill sought to punish police. But she pleaded with her fellow senators to show the same level of concern for everyone “shot, beaten or kicked” by police because of the color of their skin.

The thrust of the bill is to create a new independent commission — the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee — that would certify all law enforcement officers and give the independent agency the power to renew, revoke or otherwise modify their licenses.

The new committee could also conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct, including the excessive use of force. Police would need to be recertified every three years, and the state would maintain a searchable database for police departments hiring new officers to review an applicant’s history.

The Massachusetts Coalition of Police, which represents 4,300 officers in 157 communities, supported the new licensing requirements, but raised objections to how quickly the bill was pushed through without a public hearing. Other groups representing minority law enforcement officers said they were excluded from the development of the bill.

“Not only am I a police officer, I am a Black man and I am probably better able to speak to concerns of people of color than Senator (William) Brownsberger,” said Eddy Chrispin, president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

The police union and other law enforcement groups called on the Senate to suspend its debate until a public hearing could be held, but that did not slow down lawmakers who continued to work their way through the dozens of amendments after days of setbacks.

Despite little disagreement over many of the core elements of the bill, the issue of qualified immunity for police became one of the central points of contention.

Senate leaders proposed new limits on qualified immunity, which if approved would make Massachusetts the second state after Colorado to increase the exposure of police officers to civil lawsuits to ensure they can be held accountable for their action on duty.

Sen. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, told members that the proposed change would prevent cases where no clear violation of state law occurs from being thrown out of court based on qualified immunity.

Instead, it would allow for lawsuits to proceed if a police officer should have reasonably known their behavior violated someone’s civil rights, but it does not stop municipalities from indemnifying police or other public officials, thereby assuming the financial risk.

Several senators, including Sens. John Keenan and Marc Pacheco, said they still found the issue “confusing,” and not worth risking unintended consequences. “I know I owe them something more than, ‘I don’t know,’ ” Keenan said about what he would tell his constituents.

Opponents tried to rally behind a Sen. John Velis amendment that would have created a special commission to study and make recommendations on qualified immunity within 180 days, but that failed 16-24.

“This legislation does not eliminate qualified immunity, it rebalances it,” said Sen. Jo Comerford.

The final qualified immunity reform was approved on a 26-14 vote.

In the course of debate, Sen. Eric Lesser and Brownsberger both read from the recent Justice Department investigation documented alarming instances of police misconduct within the Springfield Police Department’s narcotic unit to remind their colleagues that Massachusetts is not immune from police misconduct.

“This report makes clear that serious reforms are not only essential, they are urgent,” Lesser said. “Violations are happening in our midst, in our commonwealth. There is practically a request by the Bill Barr Justice Department to to address these issues. We must act.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a statement early Monday evening, said he hoped to have a virtual hearing on the Senate bill this week. In a departure from the typical committee process, the House Ways and Means Committee and members of the House Judiciary Committee will jointly solicit feedback from lawmakers and other interested parties.

DeLeo said the unusual process was the result of the limited amount of time left in the formal legislative year, which is scheduled to end on July 31. The speaker’s emphasis on soliciting public feedback drew a clear contrast with the Senate’s process that had been criticized for days leading up to Monday’s vote.

“Despite a changed timetable, House leadership remains committed to working with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and House colleagues to take decisive action through omnibus legislation. We look forward to reviewing the Senate’s engrossed bill and the work ahead,” DeLeo said.

Gov. Charlie Baker last month filed his own legislation to create a system for licensing police and holding them accountable to a set of professional standards, but that bill is before the Committee on Public Safety and has not yet had a public hearing.

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