Players in place for police reform debate of 2020

Boston Statehouse

Photo: SHNS

BOSTON (SHNS) – When Gov. Charlie Baker outlined his police reform proposal on Wednesday, he welcomed to the podium two lawmakers who have been central to recent talks around law enforcement accountability — Black and Latino Legislative Caucus Chairman Carlos González and Rep. Russell Holmes, a former chair of the caucus.

Other caucus members were on hand for the announcement, as was Rep. David Vieira, who has been filing police certification bills for years, and Baker’s public safety secretary, Thomas Turco.

Recent protests have thrust onto Beacon Hill’s agenda the issues of police reform and racial justice, weighty topics that lack a quick fix and are unlikely to be addressed in one single bill.

In the days since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka have all expressed interest in passing a bill in the next six and a half weeks, the remaining window for formal legislative business this term. That will mean bringing together a variety of perspectives and building consensus for a final bill that can clear both branches and earn Baker’s approval.

“I can’t ever remember filing a bill on anything where there wasn’t agreement and disagreement, and I fully expect there will be on this one too,” Baker said Wednesday. “But again that’s why it’s so important that we not let the noise get in the way of the objective which is to get this done by the end of the session.”

The officials who gathered for the governor’s press conference Wednesday are only some of the voices who will be in the room — or, with lawmaking adapted for the pandemic era, on the Zoom — as the police reform debate plays out through online meetings, phone calls, texts and press conferences.

González said the release of the bill marked “the beginning of some candid and uncomfortable conversations.”

Holmes said the Black and Latino Caucus planned to meet Wednesday afternoon with Judiciary Committee House Chair Rep. Claire Cronin, whom he said DeLeo has asked to “craft a bold piece of legislation.”

Cronin and Sen. William Brownsberger, her former co-chair, were key figures in the passage of a 2018 criminal justice reform package, and Brownsberger, now Senate president pro tempore, will play a role in crafting the Senate version of legislation aimed at safeguarding residents against police misconduct.

Spilka tapped Brownsberger and Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, the sole senator in the 13-member Black and Latino Caucus, to lead an advisory group on racial justice that will recommend bills for the full Senate to consider this session.

“Give her all the direction, all the attention she needs to make sure she is able to drive not only this legislation, but all legislation that the caucus is pushing,” Holmes said of Chang-Díaz Wednesday. “She can punch above her weight as well, and we’re demanding that you listen to her on the Senate side as well.”

Holmes said the caucus is demanding to be “at the front of a conversation” on this and other pieces of legislation.

The caucus has so far been active on issues around police certification and broader reform, meeting recently with Baker, DeLeo and Spilka.

Caucus members have also held talks with police unions, meeting twice this month with the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, a coalition of police unions chaired by Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Lawrence Calderone and Massachusetts Coalition of Police Vice President John Nelson.

The relationship between the caucus and the unions “started in earnest” under González, who became chair at the start of this term in 2019, Holmes said. The unions, Holmes said, “have felt that for so long, they have not been included.”

González, Calderone and Nelson put out a joint statement on Tuesday announcing “building blocks” their groups had agreed on for future legislation.

In an earlier statement, after a June 9 meeting, the three men credited Rep. Timothy Whelan, a retired state trooper, as someone who was “instrumental in bringing both organizations together.” Along with caucus members Holmes and Rep. Chynah Tyler, they thanked Rep. Paul Tucker, a retired Salem police chief, for attending the meeting.

Former law enforcement officers like Whelan and Tucker are often involved in discussions around policing issues. Tucker and former Fall River detective Rep. Alan Silvia both serve on the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, which reviewed many of the police training and reform bills filed at the start of this session in 2019. That committee is co-chaired by Sen. Michael Moore, a former environmental police officer.

Bills have also been put forward this month, in the wake of the protests against police brutality and racism. Rep. Liz Miranda, a Black and Latino Caucus member who attended Wednesday’s press conference, and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem filed a reform package that seeks to impose new accountability measures and prohibit the use of excessive force.

Several police groups have hired lobbyists to monitor law enforcement issues on Beacon Hill, according to records from Secretary of State William Galvin’s office.

The Massachusetts Municipal Police Coalition is working with Charles Stefanini Consulting. The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association lists Bay State Strategies Group as its lobbyist on “all matters relating to municipal police training” and Bay State features old Beacon Hill hands David Shapiro, Robert Bernstein and Frank Shea. The Mass. Police Association’s executive director, James Machado, is registered to lobby on its behalf, and the New England Police Benevolent Association is a client of former Sen. Steven Panagiotakos.

The debate is not confined to the State House. Similar discussions have been taking place in Boston City Hall, where City Councilor Andrea Campbell proposed a resolution supporting Holmes and Vieira’s police certification bill. Campbell also partnered with Councilor Liz Breadon on a resolution backing the Miranda/Creem bills.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is among the groups that has been calling for the state to adopt a police licensing system, and its racial justice program director, Rahsaan Hall, has spoken at the State House in favor of the idea.

Holmes pointed to Hall and others who took part in a panel discussion on police certification Tuesday as among those who have “been in the fight” for a long time, St. Louis University School of Law professor emeritus Roger Goldman, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal and Sophia Hall of Lawyers for Civil Rights, Tanisha Sullivan of the Boston branch of the NAACP, and community activists including Monica Cannon-Grant and James Mackey of Boston.

Auditor Suzanne Bump, too, has been involved in the issue — she called for lawmakers to establish a standards and training system in 2019, after studying the existing mechanisms and funding for police training.

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