Senate plan targets police tactics, racism

Sen. Will Brownsberger explained some of the policy details in the Senate's omnibus police reform bill Monday morning. Senators were joined on the State House steps by advocates, a few House members, and Suffolk Sheriff Steve Tompkins. Sam Doran/SHNS photo

The Massachusetts Senate plans to vote Thursday on a wide-ranging police reform bill that would create a process for certifying and de-certifying officers and impose new limits on the use of force, including a ban on chokeholds and restrictions on the use of tear gas.

The bill, outlined at a Monday morning press conference outside the State House, also temporarily bans the use of facial recognition technology in Massachusetts, officially prohibits racial profiling, and includes language aimed at expanding access to expungement for young adult offenses. It would strike the requirement that police officers be present in schools, leaving the decision instead to a superintendent's discretion.

"Today's bill represents the first step in rethinking what public safety should look like," Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said. "It prioritizes de-escalation, prevention and care, and rejects — anywhere that it exists — a culture of aggressive force and impunity in law enforcement, and it begins to transfer power to the community."

The bill (S 2800) also contains State Police reforms that Gov. Charlie Baker proposed earlier this session, including removal of the requirement that the governor appoint a colonel from within the department.

Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who with Chang-Diaz led the group of senators that crafted the bill, said Baker's proposals were "picked up and implemented without much change."

Broadly speaking, the Senate bill's components fall into three categories, Chang-Diaz said. The Jamaica Plain Democrat said the themes are fighting racism, reducing the risk of police misconduct and "shifting from force and punishment to de-escalation and helping."

"Everything that's in this bill is a priority," Chang-Diaz said.

Senate President Karen Spilka tasked the working group with developing legislation in response to the wave of protests against systemic racism and police violence sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have each said they want to pass police reform legislation before the July 31 end of formal sessions, leaving a tight timeline for both branches to act and to reach agreement and send a final bill to Baker.

"In Beacon Hill in July, four weeks is an eternity," Spilka said. The House "may not buy in on this exact legislation," she said, and senators "took the best ideas from both the House, the Senate, looking across the country."

Spilka said the matter is "too urgent" not to get a bill to the governor.

The bill emerged Monday from the Senate Ways and Means Committee, rather than through a joint House-Senate committee. Similar procedural moves on other legislation have at times sparked discord between the two branches, creating complications for a bill's progress.

Baker on June 17 filed his own police certification bill (H 4794), which is now before the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee and has not been scheduled for a public hearing. House Judiciary Chair Claire Cronin is leading her branch's efforts to develop a bill.

Juan Cofield, president of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, said he wanted the House to pass a bill that would "mimic or enhance the work of the Senate."

Three representatives — Reps. Liz Miranda, Nika Elugardo and Russell Holmes, all members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus — joined the senators for their press conference. Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem attended as well.

Some measures in the Senate bill — the chokehold ban and establishment of an officer's duty to intervene if another uses force improperly -- align with principles that DeLeo and Black and Latino Caucus Chairman Carlos Gonzalez announced on June 10 they'd agreed to address in a House bill.

DeLeo and Gonzalez also agreed to "the immediate creation of an independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct to ensure minimum statewide policies and procedures for all law enforcement in the Commonwealth (including procedures on the use of force) as well as statewide oversight and accountability ”including police officer certification and enhanced training."

DeLeo said in a statement Monday that the House is working "to finalize our proposal and meet with relevant stakeholders," and plans to release details "in the coming weeks."

"The House remains concentrated on passing a bill that can be signed into law in a timely fashion," DeLeo said. "Additionally, we are committed to the creation of a strong and independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct and believe the legislation should be focused on the priority items identified by the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus."

Under the Senate's proposal, a new Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee would be tasked with certifying officers, and have the ability to revoke or modify that certification, and to investigate complaints of misconduct.

Officers would need to be re-certified every three years, under the bill, and the committee would have to maintain a publicly searchable database of complaints against officers.

The Municipal Police Training Committee would be required to include "training on the history of slavery, lynching, racist legal institutions and racism in the United States in its in-service training," according to a Senate Ways and Means Summary.

According to Spilka's office, the bill would allow police officers to be held civilly liable for excessive use of force, require "transparency and civilian authorization for military equipment acquisition" by a police department, and require the collection of racial and other data when pedestrians or cars are stopped. It would also prohibit school districts from sharing students' personal information with police departments for gang databases.

The bill would limit law enforcement's use of tear gas, other chemical weapons, rubber pellets and dogs and require reports when such tactics are used.

It would limit the use of deadly force to instances where de-escalation tactics have failed or are not feasible and "such force is necessary to prevent imminent harm to a person and the amount of force used is proportional to the threat of imminent harm."

"You can't shoot somebody because they're running away," Brownsberger said. "That's a big change in the field. That's an important change."

Along with creating a permanent Commission on the Status of African Americans, the Senate is also seeking to establish a pair of new task forces that would study the use of facial recognition technology and propose regulations around the use of police body cameras.

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