Baker police reform bill would decertify "bad actors"

Gov. Charlie Baker, pressing the time-sensitive nature of the police certification bill, warned Wednesday that there are only 45 days left before the scheduled end of formal legislative sessions on July 31. [Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Boston Globe/Pool]

Massachusetts would start a wide-ranging effort to crack down on police violence and improve transparency by implementing a certification system and stripping licensure from officers who commit egregious violations under a new bill Gov. Charlie Baker detailed Wednesday, following a wave of demonstrations where protesters have demanded immediate reforms.

Baker described the legislation as a "first step" toward creating a more just system, acknowledging that legislative leaders will likely attempt to build on his proposal to address other priorities beyond accountability.

Lawmakers who joined the governor at a Wednesday press conference said the legislation had been in the works for months, and Baker said the protests against police violence and systemic racism that have swept across the country in recent weeks have given the issue a new sense of urgency.

"The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers made clear that now is the time to get this done," Baker said. "There are no easy answers, and improving our law enforcement is only one piece of this process, but I think we've put together a solid set of reforms that everyone, including the law enforcement community and the folks who are here with us today, can work on to advance this bill together."

Under the bill, the state would create a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee tasked with certifying all officers. The committee would consist of both law enforcement and civilian members, with people of color comprising at least half of the panel.

Every member of law enforcement would be required to undergo a licensing process every three years. The committee would compile a database of all personnel so that departments could track training and disciplinary records and so the public could verify that officers with whom they interact are authorized to be in the field.

Rep. Russell Holmes, a member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus who has been pushing similar legislation to create a statewide Peace Officer Standards and Training system, said the accreditation process will close a gap between law enforcement and other professionals who must meet licensing requirements.

"How can we hold folks who are doing our nails and our hair at a (higher) standard than someone who could take my life? How can we hold someone who is a financial planner at a higher standard than someone who could take my civil liberties?" Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said at Wednesday's press conference.

"I am sick and tired of hearing constituents say, 'We asked for a badge number, and I didn't get it,'" Holmes continued. "Those days are over. They are coming where I will look at your name, I will see your badge number. I will then, on my phone, be able to look you up, understand your certifications, understand your training, and understand if you have done things that meet a requirement that I can see and understand your history."

SHNS Video: Gov. Baker Unveils Police Certification Legislation
Massachusetts is one of only four states that does not have a police certification system in place, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the administration's bill would create mechanisms to "hold accountable and decertify bad actors that tarnish the reputation of our dedicated and honorable police officers."

According to the bill text, the new committee would be responsible for revoking certification and would be instructed to do so for a range of reasons including conviction on a felony. Officers with a "sustained internal affairs complaint," including use of a chokehold or similar restraint, failing to prevent another officer from using excessive force, or filing a false police report, would also be automatically decertified.

A smaller panel of three police officers on the committee, three civilians on the committee and a member of the officer in question's bargaining unit would conduct a hearing on a potential decertification. The board must take a majority vote for a certification to be revoked.

"If you get decertified, you're done," Baker said.

The legislation also allows the committee to revoke or suspend certification in several other cases, including when a law enforcement official is involved in a pattern of incidents, according to the governor.

Officers could receive incentives to undergo additional training beyond standard requirements, including advanced de-escalation and advanced domestic violence and sexual assault response.

The new requirements would apply to virtually all law enforcement in the state, including state police, transit police and college or university departments. It would not cover correctional officers, which Baker said he hopes to address "through a different process."

Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, linked the legislation both to ongoing national protests and to centuries of oppression that people of color have faced in the United States.

"We are here because of the protests and the cries from Minneapolis, because of the deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Rodney King and the cries from the slaves and the slave ships and the cries of our brothers and sisters of the Native American community before this country started," Gonzalez said. "We are here today because the protests have been heard. And now it's time to answer the prayers."

State Auditor Suzanne Bump praised the proposal, describing it in a statement as a "bold step forward for policing" and pointing to work her office did calling for a POST system similar to the one proposed by Holmes.

In a press release before Baker outlined the bill, the Massachusetts Association for Professional Law Enforcement nonprofit group voiced "full support" for efforts to establish a state oversight panel but called for a study commission to be the first step.

"While reform is urgent, inclusiveness and transparency are absolutely essential for any credible effort," the group said. "Representatives of the police service, minority communities, the legal community, recognized policing experts and interested citizens at large must all be given a fair and equal opportunity to participate in this discussion. The police are an institution that impacts everyone. The process of developing recommendations must be advanced by a fact-finding process, which would allow for an opportunity for all interested parties to share relevant information and perspective with those, who will ultimately be responsible for developing the final recommendations."

Baker's bill adds to an ongoing debate as lawmakers hustle to complete legislation before the July 31 deadline after which they cannot take recorded roll call votes. On multiple occasions Wednesday, Baker warned that there are only 45 days left before that date and pressed the time-sensitive nature of the topic.

Baker said he hopes the administration's proposal can function as "a jumping-off point, a communication or a conversation starter," but stressed that he wants the final version to create a new program that can get up and running soon rather than a longer study or recommendation process.

Holmes placed the target even earlier, saying the Legislature must conclude its work by July 20 so that they still have time to take any necessary override votes or consider any gubernatorial amendments if Baker takes the full 10 days allotted to him for review.

Legislative leaders had already set their sights beyond law enforcement certification. Gonzalez said Wednesday that the legislation is a "start in the right direction" but addresses only one part of the caucus's 10-point proposal for police reform.

In a joint statement last week, Gonzalez and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said they would pursue an "omnibus" package that creates an additional independent police oversight office as well as a legislative commission aimed at increasing minority employment in the field.

They also called for a ban on chokeholds and a requirement that officers intervene when their peers improperly deploy force, two issues that under Baker's bill would result in decertification for violations.

"We don't see one intervention as the only intervention or the one pill, the silver bullet, to create change in Massachusetts," said Rep. Liz Miranda, a Roxbury Democrat and member of the caucus. "Our policing history is 160 years old, the founding of this country is 400-plus years, and we know we have to do multiple things to make public safety more just and transform it."

Senate President Karen Spilka has also been meeting with the caucus, and she said in her own joint statement with Gonzalez that they hope to tackle police standards and training, data collection and excessive use of force.

"Both the speaker and the Senate President have a more -- what we would call an omnibus bill," Holmes said. "They believe we can get this done. I would like them to prove it."