As we approach just over the halfway point of 2020, we have faced enormous challenges including a global pandemic, navigating the uncharted waters of education and childcare, economic collapse, job loss and the deep wounds of race and social injustice, just to name a few. None of us are immune to the many difficulties that are in front of us today and that lie ahead of us tomorrow.
Over this past week, my colleagues and I in the Massachusetts House of Representatives have been debating legislation that would bring reform to policing in our Commonwealth. It is in this statement I would like to address to you the reason why I voted to oppose House Bill No. 4860 relative to police reform.
My decision to vote no on this legislation was due to three main factors: 1. The potential and untested impacts of Qualified Immunity changes 2. The makeup of the Police Standards & Training Commission and 3. The rushed approach to this legislation.
Over my 11+ years in elected office and public service, I have had the distinct privilege of working with the women and men of our local police departments who have always done an exemplary job serving our communities. These individuals are tasked with the very difficult job of keeping our communities safe and put themselves in harm’s way each and every day.
Qualified Immunity is a complex legal doctrine that provides important protections for police officers, fire fighters, others and their families to ensure these individuals can do their job without fear of frivolous lawsuits. I advocated for and I am pleased that the House legislation now only makes changes to the application of qualified immunity to decertified law enforcement officers – no-one else. However, I would have strongly preferred the matter be sent to committee for further review to ensure we protect the rights of all people.
I also raised concerns around the makeup of the Police Standards and Training Commission as outlined in the Bill. While I am in agreement with having a Commission that would include civilian commissioners who bring an independent view to provide proper oversight and judicial balance, a Commission of this magnitude should also include law enforcement professionals who understand policing and are open to improving training practices. My concern is that H4860 reads, “no commissioner shall have previously been employed as a law enforcement officer, previously been employed by a law enforcement agency or be a retired law enforcement officer or retired from a law enforcement agency.” To this end, I voted for an amendment to this bill, although unsuccessfully, that would have allowed people with law enforcement experience as mentioned above to have a seat on such Commission.
I support several of the proposed additional types of training and feel strongly the state should fund this additional training. I was proud to co-sponsor Amendment 23 with former Salem Police Chief and current State Rep. Paul Tucker that requires further training for police officers in their interactions with people with disabilities or those on the autism spectrum. I was also pleased to advocate for an amendment that substantially improved the due process system for officers suspected of wrongdoing. The bill now requires a preponderance of evidence to have an investigation into an officer; and clear and convincing evidence for suspension or revocation of an officer’s certification.
There are several elements of House Bill 4860 that make good sense and have the potential to improve policing in our Commonwealth. Creating a certification process for police officers and a system that provides for the decertification of an officer in specific instances when that officer has violated the public trust. I also support a duty to intervene requirement as well as restrictions on the use of choke holds.
Please know how strongly I support all efforts to bring together law enforcement officials, legislators, members of the Black and Latino Caucus and outside experts to build a Police Officer Standards and Training system that improves and builds upon the strong training foundations we currently have in place in our state. Massachusetts has some of the most well-trained, highly regarded and professional police departments in the nation and I believe there is a willingness within law enforcement to do even better.
Importantly, and should be highlighted, this legislation includes the creation of a permanent Commission on the status of African Americans that will play a key role by informing government officials on additional steps we can take to combat racism in our Commonwealth. The commission will be a critical resource on issues affecting African Americans and will advocate for important next steps in combating systemic societal racism. It will be a primary function of the commission to make policy recommendations, based on research and analysis, to the general court and executive agencies. As your State Representative, I am ready to do all that I can to end racial inequality.
This legislation has been a complex and contentious debate and I am disappointed in the outcome. But let me remind us all that we can stand for racial justice and support police officers – the reason I know it is because I do.