Reps see Hill now coalescing around police standards bill

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Legislation that would move the state a step closer to implementing a new standards and certification system for police officers has been filed for years on Beacon Hill without reaching the floor for a vote in the House or Senate.

Now, in the wake of local and national protests against racism and police brutality, the idea appears to be gaining traction. Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature’s top Democrats have all expressed interest in police reform legislation.

Baker said this month that he’s been working with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on a proposal, and Rep. Russell Holmes, a member of that caucus, said he’s hoping Baker will release his bill on Wednesday.

Holmes participated in a video panel Tuesday about efforts to create a licensing and de-certification process for police officers, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, and the Black and Latino Caucus.

Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, and Rep. David Vieira, a Falmouth Republican, filed legislation at the start of 2019 that would create a commission to make recommendations around implementing a statewide Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) system.

At this point, Holmes said, “we’re past the commission.”

“The agreement now has been — through an awful lot of hard work with the caucus and the governor with many meetings — to say that we’re going to now go and set up an actual POST system,” Holmes said.

The POST bill, which is now before the House Rules Committee chaired by Canton Democrat William Galvin, is among a number of policy ideas flagged by the Black and Latino Caucus after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in an incident that sparked a national outcry.

“Of course, many times it takes a crisis or a situation to really put the spotlight on a particular piece of legislation, and that is where we are today,” Vieira said. “We’re at the point where, as Rep. Holmes said, we’re not going to look at how to create POST. We are going to create POST.”

Vieira, a former deputy sheriff who has filed POST commission bills since 2013, said members of the Black and Latino Caucus have been meeting with police unions and have “worked with them to create a relationship.”

“The meeting I was at yesterday, the relationship that was building is something that I never thought I’d see when we started this,” Vieira said. “Are there agreements? Yes. Are there disagreements? Yes, but we have to have a relationship going forward in order to make this work.”

While the panel was underway, the caucus and the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group issued a joint statement saying that after “a frank, pointed and productive dialogue,” the two organizations were able to reach agreement on a set of “building blocks” for future legislation.

Those principles include a “call for standardization of training of procedures and protocols for all police agencies in the state of Massachusetts” and “equal representation, both non-law enforcement and law enforcement, on any independent body, boards or commissions created to enact, enforce and oversee law enforcement legislation,” along with banning the use of chokeholds, promoting diversity and establishing guidelines to ban excessive force.

The co-chairs of the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group are Lawrence Calderone of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and John Nelson of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police.

The caucus also met with Senate President Karen Spilka on Monday, after which its chairman, Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, and Spilka said they had a “productive discussion about the urgent work that will take place in the Senate over the next few weeks to advance police reform and racial justice legislation.”

The topics included “police officers’ standards and training, excessive use of force, duty to intervene, police accountability, and the need for robust data collection,” the two lawmakers said in a statement.

Gonzalez, a Springfield Democrat, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo last week outlined measures they plan to pursue in a House bill. One provision is the “immediate creation of an independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct to ensure minimum statewide policies and procedures for all law enforcement in the Commonwealth (including procedures on the use of force) as well as statewide oversight and accountability – including police officer certification and enhanced training.”

Holmes said DeLeo has asked Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Rep. Claire Cronin to “do something bold and broad that will include more than just POST.”

Both Spilka and DeLeo said they want to get a bill to Baker’s desk before July 31, which under legislative rules is the last day of formal sessions for the two-year term. Holmes said Tuesday that he wants to see a bill through the Legislature by July 20, so that lawmakers would have a chance to act on any amendments or override a potential veto after Baker’s 10-day bill-reviewing window.

Roger Goldman, a professor emeritus at the Saint Louis University School of Law and expert in police licensing, said Massachusetts is one of a handful of states without the ability to de-certify police officers “who seriously misbehave,” along with Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island and California.

Officials in New Jersey and California have voiced interest in adopting such a system, he said.

“We all keep saying that timing is everything, so I think ultimately every state will have this ability to have minimum training, continuing education as an officer, and de-certification,” he said. “Some of you may have seen that at the federal level, Sen. Tim Scott has now recommended de-certification as well, so just recently a lot is coming together after my many, many years working in this area.”

Panelists stressed the idea that a POST system is one reform, and not an automatic solution to possible misconduct.

“I don’t think that there’s one silver bullet or pill for police reform as a total. It needs to encompass a bunch of stuff,” said Jamarhl Crawford, the founder of Mass Police Reform. “The climate now is, of course, I guess this is what people would call the come-to-Jesus moment, so where many of us who have been out shouting in the desert for years and years, right, and it has fallen on deaf ears or there’s been a reluctance and even a pushback for it, I think now, because of the time, there is a tidal wave that we have to be smart to ride in.”

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