GOV. CHARLIE BAKER signed sweeping police reform legislation on Thursday that will create a mandatory certification process for law enforcement and launch the nation’s first civilian-led police oversight board with subpoena power and decertification authority.
The new law comes more than seven months after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, spurring months of protests and calls for police accountability and debates about how race informs law enforcement decisions.
The bill is wide-ranging. It creates a new oversight panel responsible for licensing all law enforcement officers in Massachusetts every three years, bans chokeholds, and limits no-knock warrants. It requires police officers to intervene if they see a colleague using force excessively and penalizes them if they don’t. It asks law enforcement to focus on deescalation techniques and bans racial profiling. It also ends the requirement that police officers be assigned to schools that has existed since 2014.
“This bill is the product of bipartisan cooperation and thanks to the Black and Latino Caucus’s leadership on the hugely important issue of law enforcement accountability, Massachusetts will have one of the best laws in the nation,” said Baker, a Republican, in an emailed statement. He had pledged last week to sign the legislation.
Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said the new law will bring the state in line with 46 other states by adopting a mandatory certification process for police officers and improving how departments make recruiting decisions.
The centerpiece of the landmark legislation is the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), an independent state entity with the power to establish policing standards, certify law enforcement officers, investigate allegations of misconduct, and suspend or revoke certification for misconduct.
Both former House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who was in office during the majority of the bill’s negotiations, and new House Speaker Ronald Mariano weighed in.
“I am proud that the House lived up to its vow of listening to folks with lived experience in enacting one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd,” said DeLeo in a press release. Mariano called the law a “bold step forward in the modernization of our law enforcement standards.”
“The effort to dismantle institutional and structural racism that exists in our Commonwealth must be both a sprint and a marathon,” said Senate President Karen Spilka. “This bill was a necessary first step towards achieving systemic change through law enforcement accountability and transparency, but I recognize that we must continue to address barriers to racial equity in a comprehensive way.”
The Black and Latino Legislative Caucus participated in most of the negotiations on the bill and weighed in on the bill filed by Baker in June that was a result of a year of discussions.
“Today begins to address decades of demands to bring reform & accountability to law enforcement institutions,” said Representative Carlos González, chair of the caucus, in a statement.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston called the law “a mile-marker, not the end.” Advocacy organizations appeared to agree with her as comments rolled in Thursday afternoon.
Calls for change from the public, advocates, and faith organizations were tempered by continued lobbying by police unions to let law enforcement handle their own accountability measures.
“This is a compromise bill. While it lacks many of the protections advocated by both civil rights and community leaders, it also includes key provisions that will save lives, advance civil rights, and safeguard liberties,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
“I believe that within five years, the Commonwealth will be a significantly better place as a result of this legislation,” said Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont.
The law includes a requirement for centralized data collection and reporting on police violence. Another section requires the Department of Public Health to collect and publicly report data on injuries and deaths caused by law enforcement and corrections officers. It makes police misconduct investigation records available to public records requests.
Four commissions, on the statuses of African Americans; Latinos and Latinas; persons with disabilities; and black men and boys will be created to research issues affecting those demographics.
The law sets up statewide regulations on government use of face recognition technology, allowing police to request face recognition searches with a court order, and limits the use of the technology without judicial approval in emergencies.
Baker had threatened to veto the bill when the bill originally passed by the Legislature included a full ban on the use of facial surveillance technology. Lawmakers, uncertain whether they had the votes to override the governor, agreed to a compromise that imposed limitations on usage. The House approved the bill earlier this month 92-67 — less than the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
Each year, the state must report on its website how often the technology was used, by which agencies, and in which types of criminal investigations. The law also creates a commission to study whether Massachusetts should pass more restrictions on the government’s use of the technology.
Other provisions in the law call for fines and imprisonment for of up to two years for any law enforcement officer who knowingly submits a fraudulent timesheet. The state’s existing municipal police training committee, which creates police training standards, will remain within the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which was a compromise demanded by the governor.
Limitations on qualified immunity, which protects police officers and other public employees from civil lawsuits unless there is a clearly established violation of law, did not survive the legislative process and did not make it into the final law.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.
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