STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JULY 20, 2020.....With the House planning to debate its new policing reform bill later this week, civil rights advocates and church leaders on Monday expressed concern that the legislation does not sufficiently limit the use of qualified immunity, which is seen by critics as an obstacle to holding police accountable for misconduct.
The ACLU of Massachusetts said the House proposal fails to remove existing barriers that block civil lawsuits against police from proceeding in the state's courts, and some community leaders said they prefered the Senate's approach to changing the legal principle.
Rev. Bernadette Hickman-Maynard, pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Lynn, said the Senate's bill was a good start, but the House bill doesn't go far enough. She urged the two branches to conference a bill that goes "all the way and [makes] sure to fully ban these violent and deadly assaults on our communities."
"We need to end qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity shields police from liability if they violate somebody's rights," Hickman-Maynard said Monday at a rally outside the State House. "In fact, there have been many cases when the court acknowledges that the police did something wrong."
Stakeholders from all across the state are flooding the Legislature with input on wide-ranging police reform legislation that, in both House and Senate versions, would require police officers to be licensed every three years by a new commission dedicated to enforcing policing standards. That same commission would also have the power to revoke an officer's certification for violating established codes of conduct.
Pastors from twelve African Methodist Episcopal Churches gathered on the State House steps Monday urging the House to pass strong police reform legislation.
The House Ways and Means Committee reported out a 129-page police reform bill Monday morning after committee members were polled overnight in anticipation of a debate that will begin Wednesday and could spill over into Thursday. A Ways and Means aide said no representatives dissented, but did not release an exact tally or breakdown citing committee policy.
With formal sessions scheduled to end in less than two weeks and Legislative leadership indicating the need to get a police reform bill done before then, lawmakers might be hard-pressed to send legislation to the governor's desk before July 31. It's likely branches will need to use a six-member conference committee to negotiate the differences between the two versions.
The House bill would create a Commission on the Status of African Americans, establish a Massachusetts Police Standards and Training Commission responsible for the licensing of all law enforcement, and seek to limit the use of qualified immunity.
During debate last week, senators argued over qualified immunity and to what degree the Legislature should curb its use. The issue has become the flash-point of debate over policing reform, with the largest police union in Massachusetts opposing changes to qualified immunity.
The Senate bill would curb the use of qualified immunity to instances where a police officer should have reasonably known their behavior violated the law. The House bill ties qualified immunity for police to the licensing process and revokes immunity in any case that results in the decertification of a police officer.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, ACLU of Massachusetts said the House bill includes "strong" steps to protect people, such as limiting the use of "racially-biased face surveillance technology."
"The ACLU appreciates that House leadership also acknowledges the need to fix the problem of qualified immunity, although the proposed language in the bill does not remove existing barriers that prevent victims from holding police accountable," the statement read. "Good police officers should have no objection to holding bad police officers accountable. Legislators should stand in solidarity with the people they are elected to serve and who are marching in the streets to demand systemic change.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Police, which would get to recommend a member for the new 7-person Police Standards and Training Commission, opposed the Senate's plan for qualified immunity, but remained silent about the House's approach to that issue Monday.
Instead, in a statement, the union focused on the need to ensure that all police departments are accredited.
"We are closely reviewing the House bill released today and look forward to what we hope will be an open and collaborative process to reach final legislation that will best serve the citizens of the Commonwealth, enhance policing in Massachusetts and protect the due process rights of officers. The foundation of all true reform will come from accreditation of all municipal police departments, in addition to certification of police officers to ensure the highest standards and best practices in law enforcement," read the statement from MassCOP.
Since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, protestors have taken to the streets across the nation to demand an end to systemic racism in policing. In Massachusetts, during many of the press conferences held in front of the State House, advocates have said protesting must translate into policy change.
"Conference and get it together and end systemic racism in Massachusetts," Hickman-Maynard said of potential House and Senate negotiations.
In a rare expression of transparency on Beacon Hill, the House Ways and Means Committee publicly released over 400 pieces of testimony it received ahead of debate scheduled for this week. Testimony ranged from residents expressing support and opposition to federal lawmakers chiming in on certain aspects of police reform.
For the last 20 years, Gerard Daigle has severed as chief of police in Bellingham, the town he was born and raised in. Policing styles changed over the years in response to events like Sept. 11 and COVID-19, he said.
"As leaders, we adjusted our style of operations and carried on with our heads held high with support and admiration that we were doing what was best for our community and our police officers," he wrote in his testimony. "How anybody in their right mind can sit back and push legislation as a knee jerk reaction, that throws all of us in the law enforcement profession under the bus is beyond me."
Hadley Chief of Police Michael Mason runs a small department in Western Massachusetts and wrote in his testimony that he has the ability to talk to all of his officers on a weekly basis, a luxury larger department chiefs might not have. Over the past several weeks, Mason said he spent a great deal of time encouraging officers to stay in the force.
"This is almost wholly attributed to the thoughtless and kneejerk reaction of the Senate bill to re-word qualified immunity," he wrote. "While there are many other parts of the bill which are insulting and possibly even harmful to the amazing officers in this commonwealth, none reach the pinnacle of threatening their livelihoods in a profession where sometimes their actual lives are already in jeopardy."
[Matt Murphy contributed reporting]