News analysis: The policing debate amid the crosswinds of urgency, patience

The timetable on Beacon Hill for legislation to license police and hold them accountable for misconduct is no longer specific, creating an extra layer of uncertainty around the bill at a time when the case against some reforms here is now playing out within the White House.

Gov. Baker and Democratic legislative leaders in June agreed to make a push to enact an accountability bill by July 31. But when marathon sessions ended after midnight Friday without an agreement, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka laid out a new and more amorphous goal.

“We need a little bit more time just to get it right,” Spilka told a few reporters who stayed on Beacon Hill for Friday’s anti-climactic sessions.
In a statement, DeLeo echoed Spilka.

“We are committed to reaching resolution, and the conferees will take the time to get it right,” he said.

But as Black church leaders are newly urging lawmakers to take advantage of a “unique political moment” to address the impacts of “police aggression and violence in our communities,” the head of the state’s largest police union was highlighting opposition to reforms during a meeting with President Trump on Friday.

“Mr. President, just, you know, the level of attacks that are going at us, going after our qualified immunity, going after our due process rights, it’s a complete assault on the people who are paid to protect the citizens,” Scott Hovsepian, a Waltham police officer and president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), told Trump during a meeting in the Cabinet Room Friday, according to a White House transcript.

Hovsepian continued: “And if we can’t do our job — in Massachusetts, they want to file bills that will — we will not be able to put our hands on somebody unless we’re arresting them. So, if we’re dealing with disorderly people, intoxicated people, people with mental health issues, trying to get them into an ambulance, get them to a hospital, we could be sued.”

Hovsepian and other top police officials from around the United States met at the White House with Trump, who celebrated his July 15 endorsement with the leadership team from the National Association of Police Organizations. Hovsepian serves as treasurer of the national group.

On Thursday, a day before a legislative conference committee failed to strike a reform bill deal by the July 31 goal, MassCOP endorsed 66 House members who voted against the House bill, a group that included 31 Republicans and 35 House Democrats.

In their exchange on Friday, Trump seized on Hovsepian’s introduction of the debate over limits on qualified immunity, one of the most controversial reforms in the bill. Supporters say limits will give victims recourse against rogue cops; police fear the threat of civil suits will render them unable to do their jobs.

“Yeah, that’s the next move,” Trump said. “You know, they want to take immunity away from police so that if you do what you have to do, and you do it right, you can get sued. I mean, the whole thing is just crazy.”

Trump then asked Hovsepian whether Gov. Charlie Baker is “trying to help.”

“It hasn’t gotten to his desk yet, Mr. President,” Hovsepian replied. “But we’re hoping that we’ve made some very solid arguments on all these issues where he can slow the process down. That’s the problem.”

Hovsepian also told Trump that reformers in Massachusetts were “going after” the use of tear gas and K-9 dogs.

“Unique Political Moment”

Baker did not address qualified immunity in his own police decertification plan and could have a major role to play in shaping the final details of a reform bill, especially since the House bill did not pass by a veto-proof margin. By extending formal sessions last week beyond their traditional July 31 deadline, the Legislature will be in session to field any potential amendment from the governor to the bill, should Baker not sign it and wish to offer changes.

The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate did not articulate a new timeline for producing a compromise bill, and the conference committee’s negotiations will continue to play out in private. The conferees have given no sign of how close to an agreement they are, or how much additional time they’ll need. August is a time when people take vacations, this year’s primary elections fall early on Sept. 1, and legislative leaders have not outlined a concrete plan for resuming formal sessions and returning to unfinished business.

Like DeLeo and Spilka, Baker had set a July 31 goal for a finished product, though that was before the Legislature decided to extend its session.

“I would really like to make sure that by the 31st of July, we have in place a credible, aspirational program with respect to how we handle certification and transparency and decertification here in Massachusetts,” Baker said as he rolled out his certification bill on July 17.

Rep. Russell Holmes, a police certification proponent before the current push on Beacon Hill, essentially issued a challenge to DeLeo and Spilka at that same press conference. He said he hoped they were having “rigorous conversations” and that he’d asked Spilka to “please make sure you’re talking to the governor” to minimize the risk of a veto or amendment once lawmakers were on their anticipated August recess and unable to address it.

“They believe we can get this done,” Holmes said. “I would like them to prove it.”

Asked after the Senate adjourned early Saturday morning if she viewed it as a failure to not have a bill done by the traditional end of formal sessions, Spilka said no.

“The session is going on, so it’s not the end of session, so we clearly are working on it, and again, it’s better to get it right,” she said. Spilka called it a “very complicated bill” and said conferees were working on it “around the clock practically.” She added, “It’s better to get it right than just get it done for the sake of getting it done.”

Last week’s decision to extend formal sessions meant that the end of the month would no longer serve as a make-or-break point for police reform and other major bills, but stretching talks past that date could still have consequences.

It pushes back potential votes on a final bill, gubernatorial amendments or overriding a veto on an uncertain timeline that might mingle with the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election and could force tough choices for lawmakers in contested races. The public’s focus could move to summer vacations, back-to-school preparations that are complicated by a pandemic, the presidential election, and the health, economic, and social implications of the ongoing upward trend in COVID-19 cases.

And the longer it takes the conference committee to arrive at a deal — if it reaches one — the further removed a final bill will be from the series of June protests that initially propelled Beacon Hill into action. While advocacy continues, it has shifted from the nightly rallies that drew thousands to Boston streets and generated expansive media coverage.

On Sunday the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts tweeted that people should “give your reps a call and tell them to end immunity for police who hurt people.”

The same day, African Methodist Episcopal Church pastors wrote to the six conferees, calling on them to “follow the divine call for justice” by compiling a bill that includes Black and Latino Legislative Caucus priority reforms — a police decertification system, a commission to study the civil service exam, limits on police use of force and a commission on structural racism — along with “meaningful limits” on qualified immunity proposed by the Senate and the House’s version of a ban on facial surveillance technology.

On qualified immunity, the pastors said the Senate’s language “appropriately addresses this legal doctrine that has denied victims of police violence their day in court” and that it “would not eliminate qualified immunity but balance the scales of justice and require police to conduct themselves in a way that is authorized by law.”

“The experience of police aggression and violence in our communities has had generational impacts that can be addressed by these, as well as many other, reforms,” they wrote. “The confluence of events in our nation have created this unique political moment [to] do what our Lord has required of us, which is to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

During the Senate’s debate on the bill last month, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, now one of the six negotiators, raised the possibility of a limited window for action.

Speaking against an amendment to strike the bill’s qualified immunity changes and instead give a panel of experts six months to study the idea, Chang-Diaz cautioned that lawmakers will “get pulled in a thousand different directions” and that the public’s attention is “ephemeral.” The amendment failed on a 16-24 vote.

Chang-Diaz, the only Senate member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said the video capturing George Floyd’s death while a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck “stirred the souls of Americans and Bay Staters.”

“They feel shame, they feel urgency, they feel despair, they feel appropriate ownership for the failings of our nation that have brought us to this day, they feel a desire to change things,” she said. “And they feel, Madam President, most importantly of all for the fate of people of color, they feel a fleeting focus on the centuries-long pain of Black Americans. Those things will be gone in six months.”

Sam Doran and Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting for State House News Service.