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Massachusetts Senate agrees to Baker’s demands for key changes in policing bill

By Matt Stout | Dec 22, 2020

Facing the governor’s veto threat, the Massachusetts Senate on Monday approved new language scaling back several measures in a bill overhauling how the state holds police accountable, including loosening proposed limits on the use of facial recognition and leaving a police-dominated panel with oversight over training.

The 15-page amendment cleared the Democratic-led Senate, 31-9, just hours after it first surfaced, incorporating several proposals sought by Governor Charlie Baker after he warned lawmakers that he would not sign the complex legislation without the changes.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka offered a conciliatory statement after its passage, saying the bill is “not a magic bullet.”

“No one is claiming that it is, nor is it even possible for one bill to do that,” the Ashland Democrat said. “But when given the choice of making necessary compromises or letting this bill be vetoed, it was unconscionable to me to not do what was necessary to lay this important foundation of accountability and transparency.”

But advocates immediately said the new version threatened to water down what lawmakers had hailed as a “landmark” response — and what police unions criticized as a knee-jerk reaction — to demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck in May.

The amended bill must now clear the House, where an earlier version passed without a veto-proof majority.

It could move quickly, even though Representative Claire D. Cronin, who helped lead the House negotiations on the original bill, said Monday she was not involved in the Senate’s talks with Baker’s office before the amendment emerged. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office scheduled sessions for Tuesday and Wednesday, and has told lawmakers it planned to “immediately take action” on the bill with the end of the legislative session looming on Jan 5.

“This is a big dance with a lot of players in each branch,” said state Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who helped craft the Senate’s proposed changes. He called the bill as a whole “a huge first step and a necessary first step.”

“It’s important to compromise,” Brownsberger said, “because the governor needs to buy into this.”

Both Baker and the Senate otherwise left some pillars of the 129-page bill untouched, including creating a mostly civilian-led Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to handle the certification of officers, oversee investigations into misconduct, and revoke an officer’s license for certain misconduct.

It also would ban police use of choke holds, and tweak the state’s qualified immunity law — which protects police officers from certain civil misconduct lawsuits — by stripping officers of the legal shield in cases where they lose their certification because of their misconduct.

But after the Republican governor balked at giving the civilian-controlled panel the authority to approve training regulations, the Senate adopted his proposal to keep training oversight within a committee under Baker’s executive office of public safety.

That panel, known as the Municipal Police Training Committee, will also have a hand with the new POST commission in creating the rules and regulations for police use of force under the Senate’s new language. State Police, who have been buffeted by a separate overtime fraud scandal, also will keep their own training structure.

Similarly, the Senate also proposed overhauling language that passed both chambers banning all public agencies, including law enforcement, from using facial recognition technology, except for the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Under the original bill lawmakers sent to Baker, police would have had to ask the Registry to conduct any searches.

Baker said he wouldn’t sign the measure with such a ban, prompting the Senate to agree to let the State Police use facial recognition technology as well. Other law enforcement entities could then ask the State Police, the Registry, or the FBI to conduct searches under the Senate’s new version.

A Baker spokeswoman, Lizzy Guyton, said the changes address the governor’s concerns and that he would sign this version if it clears the House.

The new version disappointed some of the bill’s most ardent supporters, who cited calls to rein in the use of force and address racial injustice.

“In this legislation, those issues have not really been addressed with the sense of urgency that they could have been,” said Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston branch. “It’s unfortunate that this is where we are.”

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, lamented that many things “over-policed communities pleaded for” are not in the bill, including binding definitions of use of force. But she said there was much for advocates to celebrate.

“The political system does bend to effort,” she said.

The Legislature had initially passed language in a bill that also set new limits on no-knock warrants, allowing them only if an officer attests that he or she “has no reason to believe” that minor children or elderly adults are in the home.

But the Senate version tacked on a carve-out, allowing them if police believe there is risk to those exact groups of people — an apparent reaction to concerns raised by Attorney General Maura Healey that it could hamper police in cases of a kidnapping or a hostage situation.

The bill now heads to the House, where lawmakers have also been embroiled in speculation about DeLeo’s future and an expected transfer of power.

DeLeo on Friday said he is in job talks with Northeastern University, and supporters of his top deputy, Ronald Mariano, have said he has enough votes to succeed DeLeo, including to withstand a challenge from Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat.


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