State misses another deadline in policing reform law

Political News

Massachusetts State House

BOSTON, (SHNS) – A commission tasked with studying the civil service law and increasing transparency and the number of people of color in civil service positions did not hold its first meeting by the deadline required under the new policing reform law.

The 29-member panel was required to hold its first meeting by Jan. 30, under the bill signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 31. Its charge is to examine hiring and other personnel procedures for civil service employees, municipalities not subject to the provisions of the civil service law, and the Massachusetts State Police to improve diversity and transparency in recruitment, hiring and training. But the committee itself is still forming.

It’s the second deadline in the new law that state officials have missed. A commission tasked with studying facial recognition technology did not hold its first meeting by the required Feb. 15 deadline.

Sophia Hall, a supervising attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights and ACLU Massachusetts’ pick to serve on the civil service commission, said it is concerning that a panel created in the policing bill “bit off what looks like a little bit more than they might be able to chew within the timeframes that they expected.”

“I think at the end of the day, what we have to decide is at what point do we sort of draw the line and say, okay, this is no longer acceptable, you have made a commitment to people, and you’re now accountable for this and we need to get this rolling,” she said.

Rep. Ken Gordon, the new House chair of the Public Service Committee who would either serve on the commission or appoint a designee, said because legislative committee assignments happened on Feb. 12 it would have been “impossible” to meet on the date set out in the law, which was drafted and approved by lawmakers over a seven-month period last year.

“As soon as everybody is together, we will have our first meeting,” the Bedford Democrat said. “We are going to be doing exactly what they need us to do, but I think that date was a little unrealistic considering the change in session.”

Following the 2020 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, lawmakers in Massachusetts felt pressure inside and outside of the State House to respond with legislation addressing police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement.

The controversial bill that the Legislature produced and passed was the subject of several late-night debates and took up much of the political oxygen on Beacon Hill last summer.

Among a long list of required study items, the group is tasked with looking into the hiring and recruitment processes for civil service positions, the use of civil service eligible lists, and evaluating the feasibility of creating a statewide diversity office within the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

The commission is required to meet monthly and then submit a report of its findings and draft legislation to the governor, and House and Senate clerks on or before Sept. 30. As of last week, a spokesperson for Speaker Ronald Mariano said his office was working to finalize the House’s appointments and that the commission would meet when all appointments are finalized.

Hall said it is important to staff commissions like the one studying civil service with “people who can reflect the lived experiences of real community members from the commonwealth so that we don’t just have the same old folks who are actually very disconnected from how this works in the real world.”

“I recognize that that can take some additional time but we’re not willing to give them absolute time,” she said.

An aide to Sen. Michael Brady, the Senate co-chair of the Public Service Committee, said “we are aware of the commission.” Brady, like Gordon, would either serve on the commission or appoint a designee.

“No meeting has been set,” the aide said in an email to the News Service. “We are still awaiting word from the leadership of the Senate regarding the appointments.”

Jeffrey Lopes, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, would also serve on the panel. He said those in charge of scheduling the meetings could do a better job of connecting members to have a conversation about expectations and learning about each other.

“There’s always room for conversation but I’m not sure why the commission hasn’t met yet so I’m not going to put any blame or fault on anyone,” he said. “But I think if police reform is going to be a priority, then it’s time that we start meeting.”

Hall said she hopes the commission puts forth recommendations “that moves the need a little bit,” allowing for meaningful change and creating a system that is more reflective of communities in the state.

A wide range of stakeholders are slated to serve on the body including the president of the NAACP New England Area Conference, the chair of the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, the chair of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and three appointees from the governor.

A spokesperson for the Gov. Charlie Baker said his office appointed Michael Papagni of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, Marcella King of the Department of Corrections, and Lynn police officer and Massachusetts Coalition of Police board member Thomas Reddy and referred questions regarding a meeting schedule to the Legislature.

Lopes said he hopes the commission recommends policies that are focused on diversity and transparency to create a larger representation of the communities in law enforcement that are being policed.

“We have to really study what needs to be done to make sure that minority candidates are at the same playing field as others,” he said.

The legislative commission to study the civil service law is the second group to not hold its first meeting by required deadlines set out in the new police reform law. A facial recognition commission — tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2021 regarding appropriate regulations, limits, standards, and safeguards as it pertains to the technology — did not meet by Feb. 15.

Senate President Karen Spilka announced her picks a day after the deadline, appointing Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, Senator Adam Gomez and Suffolk University Law School Professor Maurice Dyson to the commission. A press release from the Senate president’s office said the commission would “convene once all appointments are made.”

“We must be intentional in how we address systemic barriers to justice in our commonwealth and that includes the prevalence of bias that exists in the use of facial recognition technology,” Spilka said in a statement at the time. “It’s imperative we understand its utilization so that we can better protect civil liberties, prevent misidentification and ensure its being used in an ethical manner.”

Baker also released some appointments the same day, picking Hampden Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth, Maj. Scott Range, and Acting Registrar Colleen Ogilvie, according to the Boston Herald.

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