Spilka, Tarr look back at police bill’s bumpy ride

Boston Statehouse

A clock on the corridor wall displayed the time — 4:20 a.m. — while Senate President Karen Spilka spoke to reporters outside the Senate Chamber early Tuesday morning, alongside Sen. William Brownsberger, after the branch passed a wide-ranging police reform bill during a marathon 16-hour session. (Sam Doran/SHNS)

BOSTON (SHNS) – Talking to reporters at about 4:20 a.m. Tuesday, the Senate’s top Democrat and Republican offered starkly different takes on the policing reform and accountability bill that cleared that branch minutes earlier on a 30-7 vote following a 17-hour session where key votes were taken while most Massachusetts residents were asleep.

The bill was unveiled by Senate Democrats a week ago and mostly draws from proposals that had been vetted over the first 18 months of the two-year session. Still, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said the process, which accelerated following mass protests against police brutality, was too rushed.

Two of the Senate’s four Republicans voted against the bill while Tarr and GOP Sen. Patrick O’Connor voted present. Tarr explained his vote by citing “so many unanswered questions at 4 a.m. in the morning” and pointing to groups that have complained “they haven’t had a voice in the process.” The Senate has been “inclusive, informed and engaged” when developing bills in the past, he said, adding, “I think we have more work to do on that front.”

The bill bans chokeholds and other potentially deadly uses of force by police except in cases of imminent harm, requires the use of de-escalation tactics when feasible, creates a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force, bans racial profiling by law enforcement, requires the collection of racial data collection for all police stops, and creates an African American Commission to serve as a check against discrimination and to ensure equity.

The legislation would train all law enforcement officers in the history of racism and create a licensure system under which officers could be decertified. A new independent state entity — the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC) — would be empowered to oversee the certification, training, and decertification of police officers.

The committee would include six law enforcement members, seven non-law enforcement members and one retired judge, and would investigate complaints involving serious police misconduct, and maintain a disclosure database. The bill would ban nondisclosure agreements in police misconduct settlements and establish a commission to recommend a correctional officer certification, training, and decertification framework.

Also, significantly, the bill would limit the existing qualified immunity defense, which shields police and other public employees from civil lawsuits, unless there was a clearly established violation of law, a change that the House must now grapple with as lawmakers try to get a bill to Gov. Charlie Baker.

The House plans a virtual hearing, possibly this week, on the Senate bill. Several senators said they looked forward to the addition of more information and viewpoints.

“This is a situation where there is no turning back, and there shouldn’t be any turning back,” Tarr said after the marathon session that began Monday. “We have to take action on these issues.”

A self-described “feeling great” Senate President Karen Spilka seemed relieved, despite the early morning hour, that the bill had been debated and approved.

“People went on about their passions, their understandings, and it was a very thorough debate,” Spilka said. “And clearly it showed how so much work had gone into this. When you heard people talk about it, they knew the issues.”

Floor deliberations were delayed multiple days, beginning last Thursday, as senators said the proposal was too expansive and confusing and was pieced together without the benefit of a public hearing.

Senators referenced difficult, “gut-wrenching” conversations that occurred behind the scenes, and it was clear that lawmakers were trying to act to curb blatant police misconduct, while also weighing allegiances to the police and the important work they do.

The bill will begin “the difficult work of reducing institutionalized violence,” Spilka said, and shift the Legislature’s focus and resources to communities “that have historically been negatively impacted by aggressive policing.”

“You Get People Together”

Spilka also offered some early morning insight into events that preceded the bill’s passage.

Senators had a “long meeting” on Thursday with police and “other stakeholders” and asked people with concerns about the bill to propose new language that might be written into the legislation, she said.

On Saturday morning, Republicans delayed the bill for a third straight day by requesting that all 145 amendments be printed in the Senate calendar.

After that Senate session, Spilka said, there was long Saturday afternoon meeting that included police chiefs, a police patrolmen’s association, representatives from the NAACP, and other unnamed advocates and organizations.

“It was all in one large meeting,” she said. “I believe you get people together, try to hash out the the languages, and have people talk. It’s the best way to come to resolution, which is what we did Saturday afternoon. Some suggested some language. That’s where the indemnification language came. It came from one of the police associations.”

Spilka defended the effort to be inclusive in developing the bill, and explained the Senate’s decision to go ahead with a bill that was not produced by a joint House-Senate committee by saying that waiting for a joint bill would have probably forced the Senate to wait to act until the end of July, too close to the scheduled July 31 end of formal legislative sessions for 2020.

“We had a sense that we needed to get the bill through the process. It’s the middle” of July, she said. “If we waited ’til after the House did it, we’d be almost at the end of the month.”

With 17 days until formal sessions end for 2020 and Gov. Charlie Baker’s views on the bill looming large since he has 10 days to act on any bill sent to him, House leaders, based on the bill’s turbulent journey through the Senate, face their own challenge in quickly moving a reform bill through that branch.

Democrats hold super-majorities in both branches and can overrule the Republican governor when they vote together, but the Senate bill exposed divisions in the majority party.

Also, by leaving the major issue until the end of the session Democrats are at risk of losing their ability to control the bill’s fate. To give the governor 10 days to review a police reform bill and still be able to act on his amendments or a veto on July 31, the House and Senate would need to get a bill to Baker by Monday, July 20. That appears unlikely since the House plans a virtual public hearing and hasn’t released its own bill yet.

(Sam Doran and Chris Van Buskirk contributed reporting)

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