Police reform bill seeks to combat systemic racism

Reform, Shift + Build act aims to change law enforcement paradigm.

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West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone says some of the things being talked about in a police reform bill are already things being done on Island . —Gabrielle Mannino

Updated July 21, 4 pm

A piece of legislation was recently passed in the Massachusetts Senate that is designed to change the paradigm surrounding law enforcement, and take steps toward dismantling systemic racism. The House began debating its own version of a police reform bill on Monday, and representatives were given until 1 pm Tuesday to offer any amendments, according to the State House News Service.

Known as the Reform, Shift + Build Act, this Senate bill is meant to implement comprehensive police reform across the state, with better de-escalation training and more officer accountability as two of the legislation’s central ambitions.

According to a press release from Sen. Julian Cyr’s office, the Reform, Shift + Build Act strengthens the use of force standards in a number of ways. It bans chokeholds, and also bans other deadly uses of force except in cases of imminent harm. The bill also requires the use of de-escalation tactics when feasible; creates a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force; limits qualified immunity defense for officers whose conduct violates the law; and expands and strengthens police training in de-escalation, racism, and intervention tactics.

Cyr said in the press release that with this bill, the Massachusetts Senate is working toward meeting the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, and improving relations between police officers and the public.

“I believe this bill will only make policing in Massachusetts better; it raises up the tremendous work of dedicated and courageous officers while holding all police accountable to the same standards,” Cyr said in the release.

Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee said he was in regular communication with Cyr’s office leading up to the vote on the bill. 

As an Island police chief, McNamee said he believes all the departments on the Vineyard are “on the same page.”

“I think chiefs and departments around the state are of like mind. Most of the provisions [in the bill] are things we have been calling for for years,” McNamee said. 

According to McNamee, some of the requirements laid out in the legislation are things that the Edgartown Police Department has been practicing for years.

“Some of the requirements are things we already don’t do, such as provisions surrounding chokeholds, shooting at moving vehicles, various use of force tactics that we have never had in Edgartown — these things aren’t in our toolbag, they never have been.” McNamee said.

McNamee also said qualified immunity for police is one issue being addressed by the bill and by Edgartown Police. He said that if an officer is aware they will face repercussions for any negative actions, that might shift the paradigm away from excessive use of force or misuse of power.

“If an officer acts in a just and proper way, they cannot be sued,” McNamee said. “But for an officer to have that in the back of their mind that any action, no matter how seemingly trivial, can put them in court, that is one thing this bill does,” McNamee said.

McNamee further stated that if the bill is passed in its current form, it could subject officers to increased frivolous lawsuits that would seriously hinder how we provide services to our community.

The Edgartown Police department has been interviewing companies to do training on the Island for de-escalation and implicit bias. McNamee said the six Island police chiefs have interviewed two companies via Zoom, and one has submitted a proposal outlining the elements of the training.

“We are looking at training all 70 police officers on the Island, and are looking to forge a strong private-public partnership,” McNamee said.

He said the training will have to happen in the fall, because right now the police are too busy as summer on the Vineyard has arrived.

Apart from eliminating racial bias and any excessive use of force, McNamee said the Edgartown department has played an active role in providing social services to the community for years.

“Sgt. [Jonathan] Searle and Officer [Curtis] Chandler have been working regularly with Brian Morris of Island Health Care; all three of them are recovery coaches in the outreach program that provides treatment for people recovering from addiction,” McNamee said. “That is becoming more widespread, but something we have been doing for a while.”

For McNamee, being a model of positive police-public relations and exemplifying the culture of unbiased and community-centered police work is at the forefront of his department. “We fully realize that there is a nationwide issue that has been ongoing, and it is one that we are sensitive to and want to work toward addressing in every facet of our role as law enforcement officers,” McNamee said.

West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone said he and the rest of the department are watching the bills as they evolve and move toward a final version. “The bulk of that bill has been called upon by us for quite a while to be enacted,” Mincone said. “As a department, we have always been on top of cultural competency and maintaining a close relationship with our public, and we are going to continue to do that.” 

Mincone said many of the provisions in the bill have been in practice in his department for years, but there is always room for improvement. “Anytime we can evolve our profession, we are going to take those actions,” Mincone said. ”We are noticing things on the Island that are microcosms of the bigger picture, and we are taking all those into account.”

Mincone said his role as police chief is to strive to make the department better, and improve every element of policing. “We have high standards and we always have, but those standards are still living and breathing, so we watch and listen closely to what the community is saying,” Mincone said. “Our department is not a closed door; we are in tune with the issues that are affecting not just the Island, but nationwide as well.”

According to Mincone, one special thing about the West Tisbury Police department is how deeply embedded all members of the force are in the local community. “That is how we have always been; these guys [police] are a part of the community. The most important part of this is we are all neighbors,” Mincone said.

Mincone said hiring practices and police action will be under the microscope, and public perception of police officers today is a difficult subject to approach. But he said cultural competency, sensitivity, and unbiased policing are at the forefront of the West Tisbury Police department.

Updated to show that Brian Morris currently works for Island Health Care, not Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. — ed.