Velis can’t back Senate’s police reform bill 

  • State Sen. John Velis The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2020 3:37:05 PM

HOLYOKE — When the state Senate took a vote on a sweeping police reform bill just after 4 a.m. on Tuesday, 30 of the Senate’s 40 members voted in favor. One of the seven who voted against it was a member of the western Massachusetts delegation.

Newly elected state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, voted against the legislation together with four other Democrats and two Republicans. Three other senators — two Republicans and one Democrat — voted “present.” Velis represents the 2nd Hampden and Hampshire District, which includes Holyoke, Easthampton and Southampton.

When reached Tuesday morning, Velis said he was in favor of the vast majority of the bill’s content. But he said he felt one part of the legislation needed more study: a provision that limits how police officers can claim qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that protects individual government employees from personal liability in civil lawsuits.

Velis, himself a lawyer, proposed an amendment, which ultimately failed 16-24, that would have created a special commission to study the issue and make recommendations in 180 days. It was one of dozens of amendments to the bill that were debated Tuesday.

“My no vote, and my amendment, was me saying, ‘We don’t know enough,’” Velis said in an interview. “We’re lessening a standard … we need to do a deep dive on this, and talk to the people who are going to be charged with implementing it.”

Qualified immunity was created in a 1967 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and was intended to protect government employees from frivolous litigation. However, it has increasingly been used to shield police from accountability when facing lawsuits over excessive force or killings.

Velis said that he was disappointed that the state Senate didn’t hold a public hearing on the bill. He noted that state House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he hopes to hold a virtual hearing on the bill.

“I’m not weighing in at all on qualified immunity and whether I think it’s a valid legal doctrine that needs to be around in perpetuity,” Velis said. “We did not have that information last night with all of the people that we didn’t talk to.”

When asked what his opinions are on qualified immunity, Velis said he himself needed to do more research about the doctrine and what it would mean to change it.

“I have to dive into it more,” he said. As of right now, he didn’t have an answer and said he was unsure what the change to qualified immunity would mean were it to pass in the House. “When I have to tell a constituent I don’t know, that’s not a good answer.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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