Senators push police reform bill

  • State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow FILE PHOTO/KATHERINE TAYLOR

  • State. Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2020 5:20:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Senators on Beacon Hill are expected to vote on a sprawling police reform bill Thursday and some local lawmakers are pushing for its quick passage.

The bill, S.2800, was unveiled earlier this week and, among other initiatives, would create a process for the certification and decertification of police officers in the state; impose bans on chokeholds and further limit use of force; ban the use of facial surveillance technology; redirect funding from the authorities to other community resources, and introduce new training requirements for police officers on the history of racism.

Leaders in both the Senate and House, which is working on its own police reform bill, have said they want to pass legislation on the matter before the end of formal sessions on July 31 and send a final draft to Gov. Charlie Baker, according to published news reports.

“We’ve heard loud and clear the very, very serious issues that, frankly, have been building for a long time,” said State Sen. Eric Lesser, D-East Longmeadow. “And this is going to be an important step to begin to correct that and create a path to move forward.”

Protests to defund and reform the police rattled America earlier this year after George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, was killed by a white police officer after he kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes on Memorial Day. In mid-June, Baker introduced legislation proposing the first-ever certification and decertification program for the state’s law enforcement.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said she was on a working group convened by Senate leadership in early June that drafted the Senate’s bill. She said that the bill encourages the use of de-escalation techniques and the inclusion of social workers instead of police in some crisis response. 

The Senate’s bill would create a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC) just like Baker’s did, which would be an entity composed of law enforcement professionals, community members and racial justice advocates tasked with standardizing the certification, training and decertification of police officers, according to a fact sheet about the Senate’s legislation. The committee would also have the power to investigate misconduct, with certain offenses constituting a mandatory and permanent decertification.

“This is an independent entity that’s going to be able to fully investigate and then take action around complaints,” Comerford said. “This is going to make us all stronger.”

But the Senate’s legislation goes father than Baker’s in some ways — it bans the use of facial recognition technology while also creating a commission that will study the technology. Lesser said that surveillance at such a large scale raises concerns around privacy and civil liberties at large.

“The technology is really still just emerging, but it’s already quite powerful and is progressing at really an exponential rate,” Lesser said.

Although the Senate’s bill does focus on immediate police reforms, it also includes provisions that aim to tackle systemic racism in law enforcement on a broader and longer-term scale. 

The bill looks to shift funding away from police and corrections by establishing the Strong Communities and Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund, which according to the fact sheet, would provide grants to “communities most impacted by excessive policing and mass incarceration.” Comerford said the bill would also aim to invest in more community-based, non-police responses to crises.

Comerford said greater investment into community-based social services would make it “so that there are more people able to respond to a crisis situation. So that the police aren’t the only ones in a location that have the ability to move quickly with a comprehensive response.”

The bill would also work to demilitarize police forces by requiring civilian authorization for some equipment purchases, end the requirement for the employment of school resource officers and expand access of record expungement by allowing young people with more than one juvenile charge to qualify for expungement.

The legislation’s supporters also say the proposal includes provisions that would start to “dismantle systemic racism,” namely by banning racial profiling, requiring more comprehensive data collection, requiring new training requirements on the history of slavery, lynching and racism and creating a commission on the status of African Americans.

Lesser said these longer-term initiatives were aimed at “changing the culture” around law enforcement by trying to redirect its focus toward one that fosters partnership and “guardianship” with communities.

“All too often, unfortunately … communities view the police as almost a ‘warrior’ force,” Lesser said. “And that’s bad for everyone. That’s not something that is sustainable.”

As to whether he’s optimistic the House and Senate will come to some sort of compromise on police reform before the end of the month, Lesser said: “I think we have to.”

“The moment demands it, the public needs it, our communities need it,” Lesser said, noting that there’s been public commitment from Baker and other elected leaders over police reform. “I think that we just have to get something done.”

Comerford said that “where there is a social and political will” for getting something done on Beacon Hill, “there’s a way.”

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


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