Panel discusses police reform bills

Speakers stress the importance of an officer training system and scaled-back qualified immunity.

NAACP members, organizers, and faith leaders participated in a conference call Monday night to discuss the proposed police reform bills on Beacon Hill. — Screenshot Brian Dowd

Getting out to vote, keeping pressure on legislators, and continuing dialogue on cultural change was some of the advice a panel of speakers gave during a Zoom discussion hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Monday, concerning the sweeping police reform bills passed by the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Monday’s panel featured Beverly Williams, co-chair of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO); LaSella Hall, president of the New Bedford branch of the NAACP; the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond, a pastor at the Bethel AME Boston; and Erik Blake, Oak Bluffs police chief and president of the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the NAACP. The discussion was moderated by Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, a lawyer and member of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP executive committee.

The panel discussed the House and Senate police reform bills that were introduced in July, but are now in conference committee. While both bills aim to overhaul policing practices across Massachusetts, the two bills differ in some key areas.

The House bill would create a seven-person Massachusetts Police Standards and Training Commission that would be the “primary civil enforcement agency” in the state. The bill gives the governor, attorney general, and law enforcement unions the ability to appoint members to the commission. 

The commission would create certification standards for police, and oversee a division that sets training standards for state police, sheriff’s deputies, and local police.

The House bill keeps the state’s qualified immunity law intact, but adds that an officer would not have immunity to civil liability for any conduct that “violates a person’s right to bias-free professional policing” if it results in that officer’s decertification.

The House would also limit the use of facial recognition technology by public agencies, and candidates outside the state police would be allowed to be appointed colonel.

The Senate would create a 14-member Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee to certify and decertify police officers.

A key difference from the House bill is the Senate bill would scale back qualified immunity, a judicial doctrine that protects individual police officers from legal claims of brutality or other misconduct. Under qualified immunity, government officials can only be held liable for unconstitutional actions if it’s established in existing case law that the conduct was unlawful.

Both bills ban chokeholds, ban the use of chemical agents like tear gas, restrict the use of no-knock warrants, establish a duty to intervene if one officer witnesses misconduct by another, and set up public registries of police officers against whom complaints have been sustained, preventing bad officers from moving from one department to another.

Hardy-Doubleday said both state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, were invited to the panel, but scheduling conflicts prevented them from participating. He expressed his disappointment that neither could attend.

“Neither one of them being here is very disappointing,” Hardy-Doubleday said. “Their silence is deafening.”

Speaking to The Times by phone Tuesday, Fernandes said he had agreed to an earlier date for the panel, but that he was unable to attend the meeting when it was moved to Monday night. He said he would like to attend future discussions about police reform.

There were several amendments Fernandes voted for that were not put in the House bill, such as a ban on pepper spray, allowing local towns to restrict military-style weapons used by police, and an amendment that would go further on scaling back qualified immunity. “I’m confident that we’ll get a final version passed by the end of this year,” Fernandes said.

Cyr’s office also confirmed Cyr was committed to participate in the originally scheduled meeting, but had a prior obligation when the panel discussion was rescheduled. Cyr also plans to participate in future discussions.

“The bill is in a conference committee now. I hope that the conferees reach a consensus version quickly, so that both chambers can do the right thing and send it to the governor’s desk for his signature,” Cyr wrote in an email. “The finished product should include restrictions on qualified immunity, which has evolved into a defense that allows even the most egregious civil rights violations by public employees — including police officers — to go unaccounted for.”

Hall opened Monday’s discussion by saying a conversation about police reform should be placed in context. “It’s important to understand how law enforcement has impacted Black, indigenous, people of color, and these communities for a very long time. It’s important to situate the conversation around police reform and understand that there were many, many lives that were taken,” Hall said. “It’s not just about a Trayvon Martin or a Michael Brown, but it’s also about an Emmitt Till, it’s also about four Black girls that were burned in a church, and two Black boys that were killed as well across town. Understanding how we situate the conversation in context is essential, as it will hopefully get us some very serious answers of today.”

Hall said, for him, the qualified immunity, proper use of body cams throughout entire shifts, and bans on chokeholds were non-negotiable. Hall said he was surprised the Democratic-controlled Senate and House could not agree on a single bill.

Later in the discussion, Hall said there was low-hanging fruit for people wanting to bring about change: filling out the census and getting out to vote.

Hammond said he wanted to see a final bill that resembled more of the Senate bill as a first step toward change. “Extraordinary powers always require extraordinary accountability,” Hammond said. “If you have the authority to deprive me of life or liberty, you have to be extraordinarily accountable.”

In talks with police officers, Hammond said many feel abandoned by society, but felt the “blue wall thinking” needed to change.

“We need to make it in the interest of police officers and their unions to care more about the reputation and the respect for good officers than they do for protecting often bad officers,” Hammond said.

On the organizing front, Williams, along with the GBIO, has been working on Beacon Hill to help shape policy. She said it was not the individual police officers, but the institution of policing that was the crux of the issue. “People change when the cost of not changing becomes too great,” Williams said. 

GBIO worked with the Black and Latino caucus to discuss what they’d like to see on a reform bill, such as peace officers’ standards in training, limits on use of excessive force, and a racial equity commission to study structural racism and dismantle it.

She said certification and decertification for police officers is a must. “I am a retired Boston Public School teacher. I couldn’t tell you how many certifications I had to have to handle a book, but yet Massachusetts does not certify police officers to handle a gun. That is ludicrous to me, a book and a gun,” Williams said. “We just want to raise the standards, and we just want some accountability.”

Later, Williams said there was an embedded culture of controlling the status quo.

As a member of the police, Blake said he was not afraid of either reform bill. Blake supports the use of body cams, judicial review of no-knock warrants, and outside investigations of use of excessive force resulting in a death or serious injury. One of the most important aspects of the bill for Blake was the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) system certification, and decertification of police officers. 

“I need a license to drive my car; the dentist I saw today needs a license to work on my teeth,” Blake said. “We’re in a profession where we can’t afford to have any bad apples — we just can’t afford it, it’s too important. Doctors, airline pilots, you can’t just have a bad apple that’s an airline pilot, because people die, people get hurt.”

Blake also said a major problem in the policing profession is when an officer who was fired goes to another department looking for a job.

“That’s a major problem in our profession, where people work in a town and then they go 400 miles away and get a job,” Blake said. “We’re stuck with a piece of paper that says, ‘This person worked for me from this date to this date, and this is their salary,’ and that’s all I can say. That’s absolutely unacceptable to me.”

Blake also took issue with the 40 hours of annual in-service training that is required for police. Massachusetts does not have any mechanism to enforce the in-service training — the responsibility is left up to cities and towns. Massachusetts is also one of the few states in the country that does not have a police licensure and certification process. By contrast Massachusetts requires licensure for over 50 trades and professions, such as barbers, plumbers, electricians, and doctors, according to the state’s website.

This means there is no statewide system to hold officers accountable for meeting professional and training standards. The 40-hour in-service training for police consists of firearms training, CPR, defensive tactics.

“Where is the community policing training? Where is the problem-solving training? Where is the officer wellness training, where they learn to deal with the stresses in their life?” Blake said. He said it was about changing the “warrior mentality to the guardian mentality.”

Williams said the public should go further and reimagine what they want the police to be.

“What would it look like to reimagine public safety? If we come out of this with a watered-down bill, we will have the same problem,” Williams said. “To come away with nothing would be a slap in the face.”

To push the reform bill forward, Hammond and Williams said people need to keep up pressure on their legislators.

Hall felt that the bill was being held up due to a “lack of moral will,” and a lack of people wanting to “move forward and change our society.”

“What’s holding them up? You could make an argument it’s qualified immunity that’s probably the biggest thing, because the [police] unions have come out on that,” Hall said. “It’s deeper than that. What’s holding them up is their lack of moral courage and moral will, and I think that’s what’s even scarier for me.”

The panel also touched on defunding the police — a call not to abolish the police, but to reallocate or redirect funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by a municipality.

After the death of George Floyd, and as protestors flooded cities and towns, Blake said he has been working with the other Island police chiefs and leaders at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services to ask if the Island’s social services were happy with their relationship with the police.

Often when someone falls through the cracks in society, such as homeless, mentally ill, domestic violence victims, or drug users, it’s often the police who provide the level of government that shows up first, which Blake said needs to change. He said with larger police departments, there are millions of dollars that could be used differently.

“It would be nice to have help,” Blake said. “There’s some departments that hire social workers to go on every call with them; that’s a start.”

Closing out the discussion, Hammond praised the younger generation of activists for their peaceful protesting, and added that voting is only the beginning of transitioning protest to policy.

“If you think the problem is solved because you elect the right person, you’re fooling yourself. Democracy, if it’s going to work for everyone, has to involve everyone. If you’re not at the table, if you’re not raising your voice, you will not be heard,” Hammond said. “Voting is the first step in preserving the democratic process — not the last.”