Updated Dec. 7
The Massachusetts legislature passed an expansive police reform bill Thursday. The bill establishes a higher level of police officer credentials and standards, places strictures on the use of force, authorizes commissions to explore structural racism and civil service law, places a near ban on facial recognition, brings tougher penalties for payroll offenses and the molestation of prisoners, tightens standards for no-knock warrants, makes expungement of criminal records easier, reforms parts of the State Police, and establishes a body camera task force, among many other things.
The bill is now on Charlie Baker’s desk.
“Baker faces a decision of whether to accept the agreement struck by House and Senate Democrats,” State House News Service reported, “or to try to amend the legislation with five weeks left until the end of the session. ‘I can’t speak to the specifics of this until we have a chance to review it,’ Baker said Tuesday.”
A major section of the legislation establishes uniform accreditation for police officers under a police officer standards and accreditation committee.
“A person shall not be appointed as a law enforcement officer unless certified by the police officer standards and accreditation committee,” the bill states. Completion of academy or program training deemed properly accredited will in turn grant a police officer certification by the police officer standards and accreditation committee. That committee will have extensive grounds to revoke an police officer’s certification. These are abridged reasons an officer’s credentials could be revoked:
- The certification was issued by administrative error.
- The certification was obtained through misrepresentation or fraud.
- The officer falsified a document to obtain or renew any certification.
- The officer has had a certification or other authorization revoked by another jurisdiction on grounds that would require revocation under this section.
- The officer is convicted of a felony.
- The officer is found not guilty of a felony by reason of lack of criminal responsibility.
- The officer is terminated based upon intentional conduct that includes things like obtaining a false confession, making a false arrest, or engaging in a hate crime, among other things.
Police officers also will be required to intervene if they observe “another officer using physical force, including deadly physical force, beyond that which is necessary or objectively reasonable based on the totality of the circumstances …”
Chilmark Police Chief Jonathan Klaren told The Times his department revamped its use of force policy in September, and included “duty to intervene” language.
“I think this is going to standardize hiring requirements, and perhaps firing requirements,” Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee said. He said he believed such clarification would generally be welcomed by chiefs.
McNamee noted his department became accredited in 2019, but that department accreditation differs from officer accreditation. When a department gets accredited, he said, it’s a type of agency initiative to set standards, whereas the proposed officer certification would be an individual’s minimum standards, and incumbent on that employee to maintain.
West Tisbury Police Chief Matt Mincone said his department was the first to be fully accredited on the Vineyard. It’s a constant cycle of “self-assessment,” he said, to maintain and better the department.
In a statement to The Times, Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden touched upon the nation’s mood in regard to law enforcement of late, and in light of the bill, summarized his department’s and the Massachusetts Sherriff’s Association’s general positions: “I join my fellow sheriffs of the commonwealth and the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association, echoing the sentiments MSA has shared: ‘As sheriffs, we stand united in our recognition that there is a great need to restore trust between all law enforcement agencies and all communities, particularly those of color. The elected sheriffs of the commonwealth represent the longest serving peace officers in Massachusetts. We have demonstrated a commitment to protecting public safety and directly responding to the needs of our respective communities, and are dedicated to a collaborative approach to ensure injustices are not repeated.’’
Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain wrote that he hasn’t yet thoroughly read the legislation. Nevertheless, he pointed out that he recently updated his department’s use-of-force policy, and had his officers scheduled for implicit bias training, before the training was postponed due to an upswing in the pandemic. He plans to send his officers to the training this coming spring, when it’s expected to be reoffered.
“I’m in favor of having a certification system as long as it’s created correctly,” he emailed. “The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association has been keeping membership up-to-date on the proposed legislation, and I have been attending their Zoom meetings to keep apprised of the updates. Needless to say we’ll abide by any laws/rules that arise from any approved legislation.”
Legislators praised the compromise. “I’ve had dozens of conversations with police chiefs and officers, organizers and activists, and constituents from all walks of life, especially Cape Codders and Islanders of color, throughout the last six months. We have done what our constituents asked us to do,” Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said through a release Thursday. “This bill will make policing in Massachusetts better — it raises up all the tremendous work of dedicated, courageous, and kind police officers, while holding bad actors accountable. It is an important first step toward realizing the promise of equal justice under the law, and I was proud to vote yes on the final bill.”
“The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have finally awoken many white Americans to the injustices faced by the Black community at the hands of the criminal justice system,” Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, said through a release Thursday. “Millions have marched and demanded action, and this bill makes meaningful reforms to policing that will improve the well-being of our communities. While there are still many other steps we have to take to rectify centuries of racial injustice, passing this bill is an important step.”
Local activist Eugene Langston Jemison told The Times he hopes Gov. Baker signs the bill into law, even though not everything he hoped for is contained in it.
“In general, I just think it’s a good step in the right direction,” he said. Jemison said Vineyard police departments have been taking steps toward improvement despite the bill.
Jemison said he hopes the bill will advance “inclusion” and “diversity,” and “weed out bad police.”
Updated with comments from Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain.