Island legislators hope for police reform bill

In a two-hour forum Monday night, the Island’s state legislators shared their experience working on the sweeping police reform bills.

The MV chapter of the NAACP hosted a forum with the Island’s state legislators to discuss the pending police reform bills. — Screenshot

In a Zoom call Monday night hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said it would be a failure if the Massachusetts legislature did not pass a police reform bill by the end of the year.

The bills were introduced in July, following weeks of civil unrest and demonstrations after the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Both bills were passed by their respective chambers, leaving them in conference committee — an ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate members to reconcile differences in legislation.

The forum was a follow-up to one held in July that hosted activists from the Boston area. Monday’s forum featured an array of Vineyard activists, police officers, and other community leaders, along with Fernandes and Cyr. The discussion was once again moderated by Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, a lawyer and member of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP executive committee.

Fernandes and Cyr both shared their efforts working on the bills, but since neither were part of the confidential conference committees, they couldn’t offer more information on the status of the bills.

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 bill 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 that 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, make some limits on the use of 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.

Cyr said police reform is long overdue in Massachusetts, and he was proud the bill passed the Senate with a supermajority of 30-8. 

There was urgency among the legislators and the activists on the call for a police reform bill to be passed by the end of the calendar year.

“If we do not get an agreement here, this would be a complete failure,” Cyr said.

Hardy-Doubleday mentioned the MV NAACP chapter’s effort to remove plaques honoring Confederate soldiers in Oak Bluffs as an example of using momentum to enact change. Oak Bluffs selectmen originally had the idea to have residents vote on the plaque removal at town meeting. Selectmen ultimately decided to remove the plaques.

The police reform bill is one of the many important pieces of legislation pending in the conference committee. Fernandes told the forum that a massive climate change bill, an economic development bill, and the state budget are all being worked on. He also criticized the process of bills being decided on at the last minute.

“A lot of times with these negotiations, they come down to the end, the last minute before people on competing sides come together and hash out those compromises that have been holding up the bill. That’s a function of the process. Is that a good thing? I would argue that it’s not,” Fernandes said. 

The House bill’s process was eye-opening for Fernandes, because his colleagues rejected several amendments he supported and felt would have made the bill stronger, such as banning tear gas, eliminating qualified immunity, and the demilitarization of police. 

Former Boston city councilor Tito Jackson participated in Monday’s forum, and spoke about living life as a Black man in the U.S. “As a Black man in the United States of America, what we look like actually affects our day-to-day,” Jackson said. “We have to think about Massachusetts from the perspective that we should be a state that’s leading, not following in the footsteps of other states. We need bold leadership, and we need to support bold leaders.”

Giving a local perspective, activist and Vineyard resident Eugene Langston Jemison spoke about his interactions with law enforcement, and how it’s failed him his entire life. As a 17-year-old in the 1980s in Florida, Jemison was charged with illegal possession of a gun, before being sentenced to 18 years in prison for stealing bicycles. “I did what I had to do as far as paying my debt to society,” Jemison said. “But that stigma still follows me 30 years later.”

Another community activist, Lisette WIlliams, spoke about her rise to action following the death of George Floyd.

“We’re tired. We’re tired of our brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and fathers, and grandparents, and uncles, and cousins, and aunts, and friends being killed by police,” she said.

Erik Blake, Oak Bluffs police chief and MV NAACP chapter president, also spoke about his unique position in both law enforcement and civil rights activism. Blake agreed with all of the reforms outlined in the bills, and pushed for a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) system certification and decertification of police officers. 

“I need a license to drive my car, I need a license to be a plumber,” Blake said. “The ability as a police chief to have another body look at what happened and to decertify that person so that person doesn’t go 150 miles away and get another job … [other police departments] will hire them and not get the true story.”
Come this spring, every Island police officer will be trained in unconscious bias through a specialized training program. The training will also involve community members, and has police departments collect racial data on arrests and motor vehicle stops.

Although it’s delayed as it sits in committee, Fernandes said, he believed a police reform bill would be passed by the end of the year.

Speaking broadly, Fernandes said police reform is part of a larger issue America has with its history, its present, and its future. “We uphold ourselves as this as this bastion of freedom that the Founding Fathers were so supportive of while at the same time failing to recognize our country was built on racism and genocide and the like. Part of what the Trump era has shown us is that people have a different set of facts. That is a real problem when trying to solve problems,” Fernandes said. “How can we solve these systemic problems when we are not starting with a baseline of what actually happened in American history? … Education in this country fundamentally needs to change. Our past is not our past. Our past is very much our present.”