Area police chiefs say officer certification long overdue

  • Belchertown Police Chief Christopher Pronovost FILE PHOTO

  • South Hadley Police Chief Jennifer Gunderson FILE PHOTO

  • Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2020 6:42:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As state lawmakers consider creating the state’s first-ever certification and decertification process for police officers, some local police chiefs are praising the idea, saying such a system is long overdue.

After protests erupted following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, Gov. Charlie Baker in June laid out police reform legislation that, among other things, would create a committee with the power to certify all law enforcement officers in the state, as well as the power to renew, revoke or modify licenses. Just this week, the state Senate passed its version of a police accountability bill that would also create such a committee.

The proposed certification committee would be Massachusetts’ version of a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) system. Massachusetts is one of four states in the nation currently without such oversight for law enforcement officers.

“I think it’s a long time coming,” Belchertown Police Chief Christopher Pronovost said. “This is something that’s actually been pushed for by our profession for many years.”

Although final language on a police accountability bill has yet to make it out of Beacon Hill, both Baker’s and the Senate’s police reform legislation includes a version of a POST system called the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation (POSA) Committee.

Pronovost said one of the biggest challenges facing policing in the state is the current ability for some police officers who left a police department because of misconduct to pack up and serve at another law enforcement agency in the state or country. The state Senate’s police reform bill would create a database for police departments hiring officers to review an applicant’s record as a way to prevent such rehirings.

“Absolutely, there needs to be a way to track that,” Pronovost said of police officer misconduct. “That’s something that should have been done a long time ago.”

South Hadley Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen agreed about the benefits of being able to track officer misconduct, saying that a POST system was “a good direction to go in.” She said it makes sense to certify police officers because other professions like barbers, for example, require licensure, though the process for decertification is key as it would forever strip away a person’s ability to serve if they were involved in misconduct.

“The people put so much trust in us,” Gundersen said. “We can take someone’s liberty away — we can use force against somebody. Decertification is as important as certification.”

Renewal of certification for police officers in the state would likely be attached to completion of a certain amount of in-service training hours over a renewal period of three years. Last year, State Auditor Suzanne Bump released a study showing that as many as 30 police departments in the state were not meeting the 40 hours of annual in-service training currently required officers.

Gundersen said her department exceeds training requirements, but that a POST system in Massachusetts would force other departments to follow the law.

“I think training is certainly behind in the commonwealth when you look at the rest of the country,” she said.

Department accreditation

While the idea for police officer licensure is gaining traction in the state, the process for accreditation and certification of police departments has existed in some form for many years. And though police leaders say the process for such accreditation promotes accountability, there are some pitfalls.

The Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission is tasked with oversight of accreditation of police departments, holding them to standards that “reflect the best professional practices in each area of police management, administration, operation and support services,” according to the Northampton Police Department’s website. Once a state agency, in 2005, the commission became a private nonprofit.

According to its website, the commission serves as “the sole arbiter of state certification and accreditation of police agencies within the Commonwealth.”

Of the 357 law enforcement agencies in the state, the commission says 93 have been accredited with another 14 holding a lesser certification. The hundreds of benchmarks a police department must meet for accreditation are primarily aimed at preventing possible financial liability by standardizing procedures and policies, such as those regarding the handling of internal affairs, records, victim/witness assistance, and many other areas. Participation in accreditation is not mandatory for police departments.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper, whose department is accredited, sits on the commission’s board of directors. She said an assessment team reviews all of a police department’s policies to ensure specific standards are met. The Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission also does compliance of standards reviews half-way through the three-year period an agency is accredited. But there can be one major challenge with accreditation, she said.

“The biggest disadvantage of accreditation is the time and energy that it takes to manage and oversee the process,” Kasper said.

Pronovost said the Belchertown Police Department became accredited this June after working at it for three years. He said he is grateful for the consistency it’s given his department in terms of procedures and that he’s proud of his department’s new status. But he did acknowledge the stress accreditation can put on a department, saying that Sgt. Michael Beaupre served as accreditation manager while also answering calls as an officer.

“It’s very hard to achieve, and it’s a lot of work,” Pronovost said. “It makes you create a policy and procedure, and it forces you to abide by those policies and procedures.”

Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti, whose department is accredited, said there’s another barrier to the process: money. Departments involved in accreditation pay dues and also often pay people to work on achieving the status, Alberti said. For police departments not accredited, they are given standard policies by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and all police departments must follow laws governing some departmental operations, Alberti said.

Pronovost said smaller departments that lack the proper resources may have a harder time getting accredited, though every department should strive for it. But since the barrier for participation can be so high, Pronovost said it might “behoove” the state Legislature to come up with a standard list of policies and procedures that every department should follow regardless of accreditation status, such as the use of force and fair and impartial policing.

“I think there is a list of things so important that a police department shouldn’t be able to operate unless they have those policies,” Pronovost said.

Senators on Beacon Hill have proposed a version of the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee that can conduct independent investigations into allegations of misconduct, as well as mandating departments to report to it allegations of officer misconduct within days of receiving them. The bill would also ban chokeholds and limit the use of tear gas, among other changes.

Although Alberti does support it, he said accreditation isn’t always an “end all” for making sure police departments are following the rules.

“Some of the police departments that are having major problems right now are accredited,” he said.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.

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