Senate okays its police bill; targets chokehold, tear gas

Collins votes 'No'; House vote next as session wanes

After a difficult rollout and several false starts, the state Senate passed a far-reaching reform of policing in Massachusetts early Tuesday morning that would ban chokeholds, limit the use of tear gas, license all law enforcement officers, and train them in the history of racism.

The 30-7 vote in the upper chamber now shifts the focus of the debate over racism and policing to the House with just weeks left to finalize a bill that has vaulted to the top of the Legislature’s end-of-session agenda.

The Senate bill, which was developed after weeks of public protest around the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, would impose a new level of oversight on police that has been proposed for years on Beacon Hill, but has failed to gain traction until now.

It would also controversially scale back a legal protection for police and other public employees that currently shields them from civil lawsuits unless there was a clearly established violation of law. The legislation has faced fierce opposition from unions representing law enforcement, including the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

Democratic leaders, including US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, weighed in to support the effort of Senate leaders to limit qualified immunity, while the state’s largest police union singled out that provision as one that would leave police officers second-guessing themselves on the job.

The bill would create the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee, a new independent entity responsible for certifying all law enforcement officers and giving the independent agency the power to renew, revoke, or otherwise modify licenses. 

The new committee would also have the power to conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct, including the excessive use of force. Police would need to be recertified every three years, and the state would maintain a searchable database so that police departments hiring new officers could review an applicant’s history.

Three members of the Senate voted “present” while seven voted “no,” including Sen. Nick Collins, who represents the First Suffolk district, including most of Dorchester and Mattapan.

In a statement issued later on Tuesday, Sen. Collins said he supported key elements of the bill, but objected to other provisions and warned that the qualified immunity change has “a high likelihood of being used disproportionately against minority government employees in many sectors, not just policing.”

Read the full statement from Sen. Collins (attached).

“I also felt it was necessary to express my discontent that groups which represent Black and Latino officers, who are disproportionately disciplined, and community-based organizations that have been fighting against racial injustice and inequality in our communities for decades were not at the table for these critical conversations,” Collins wrote. “I’m hopeful that after hearings in the House a more thoroughly vetted bill will come back to us in the Senate. I look forward to voting for a package that brings about thoughtful and meaningful reform to address police misconduct, holds unfit police officers accountable, and addresses racial injustice in our Commonwealth.”

Asked about the legislation on Tuesday, Mayor Martin Walsh said no one from the Senate ever reached out to the city to get its feedback on the proposed reforms, feeding into the criticism that Senate leaders did not adequately reach out to stakeholders as they developed the bill.

Walsh said the Boston Police Department has already implemented many of the reforms in the bill, adding that he looked forward “to working now with the House of Representatives to see how it moves forward. But there’s no question there’s need for reforms in policing.”

The city’s own task force, Walsh said, plans to hold online listening sessions over the next two weeks on the use of police body cameras, implicit bias training, civilian oversight, and use of force policies.

State Rep. Russell Holmes told the Reporter on Tuesday that he is excited to get to work on the bill with his colleagues in the House before advancing it to Gov. Baker. 

“I’m feeling good that it got passed, and I’m glad that the governor did his part and now it’s our job in the House,” said Holmes. “I’m hoping we’ll have our review done by July 20 so that Gov. Baker has his full 10 days to review it.”

Holmes said that even with the inclusion of reform aimed at qualified immunity, the bill is missing a key component. 

“Civil service is missing,” he said. “That was one of the four items outlined by the Black and Latino Caucus and it’s not in there. I will be demanding that we at least set up a commission to review it over the next six months so that we have a plan,” he said.

Rep. Liz Miranda, who represents parts of Dorchester and Roxbury in the 5th Suffolk district, said she stayed up all night to watch the debate and vote.

“First and foremost, I’m really grateful for the leadership of some key people including the Senate President [Karen Spilka], Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Cynthia Creem, [Will] Brownsberger,” she said. “I will say that everyone on the Boston delegation that stood on the side of justice is saying they want us to create laws and make a change. This is about addressing systemic racism that is deeply embedded in policing.”

She added: “I’m proud that the efforts put forward to weaken the legislation were defeated. We don’t need more studies to show us that racism is impacting use of force, because we know it is. I hope that folks understand that these are efforts to defeat real reform. I’m looking forward to protecting and expanding critical sections of the bill on the House side. I’ll also support qualified immunity and I hope it strengthens on our side,” said Miranda. 

Before the early morning vote took place, union leaders who work as police officers assailed the Senate bill and called for more hearings to review the legislation.

“I am particularly bothered by Sen. Chang-Diaz. We have made numerous calls and she has never called us back,” said Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and a 21-year veteran of the BPD.

Chrispin also took aim at Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who has been leading the push for the bill. “Not only am I a police officer, I am a black man and I am probably better able to speak to concerns of people of color than Sen. Brownsberger,” Chrispin said.
In floor remarks, Brownsberger conceded that some police officers are feeling attacked, but he said he wanted to assure the 99.9 percent of police officers who behave appropriately that the bill was not targeting them. “Let’s get on with it,” he said.

Katie Trojano of the Reporter contributed to this article.