Beacon Hill Tackles Police Reform

Beacon Hill tackles police reform

Good intentions are rapidly finding their way into actual legislation. This moment must not be lost.

By The Editorial BoardUpdated June 12, 2020, 4:00 a.m.

Elected officials of color in Massachusetts government marched on June 2 from the African Meeting House on Joy Street to the nearby Mass. State House to hold a press conference to voice support for those protesting police brutality against Black Americans. The group stands on the State House steps and includes state Representative Russell Holmes (left), DA Rachael Rollins (center) and US Representative Ayanna Pressley.
Elected officials of color in Massachusetts government marched on June 2 from the African Meeting House on Joy Street to the nearby Mass. State House to hold a press conference to voice support for those protesting police brutality against Black Americans. The group stands on the State House steps and includes state Representative Russell Holmes (left), DA Rachael Rollins (center) and US Representative Ayanna Pressley.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The pain and anguish that has reverberated from the streets of Minneapolis around the nation and the world has spurred an unprecedented level of soul-searching about the role of police in a civil society — about the training and conduct of police officers, and about how governments decide who is fit to put on a uniform in the first place.

That conversation has now begun on Beacon Hill — and good intentions are rapidly finding their way into actual legislation. Ideas big and small have emerged in the House, the Senate, and from the governor’s office. Institutions not accustomed to moving with any great sense of urgency are doing just that, giving every indication they have heard the demonstrators who have gathered in the shadow of the State House since the police killing of George Floyd was caught on a harrowing video.

Too many acts of police violence that have captured national attention have faded without true reform; previous protests have ended without real results. The state’s lawmakers must ensure that this moment is not squandered, that it is not lost.

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House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a joint announcement with Representative Carlos González, chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, put the weight of his office behind at least four proposals as a “first step along the long road to ensuring the promise of equal justice for all citizens of the Commonwealth.”

And DeLeo imposed his own deadline — July 31 — for getting an omnibus bill addressing racial justice issues in policing to the governor’s desk. Its current goals are fairly straightforward:

▪ Creation of an independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct that would be tasked with looking at police procedures, including the use of force, police certification, and training.

▪ Abolishing the use of chokeholds by police.

▪ Establishing an affirmative obligation for all law enforcement officers to intervene if a fellow officer is improperly or illegally using force.

▪ Create a special legislative commission to examine civil service law, with an eye toward enhancing the recruitment of minority officers.

The devil, of course, is always in the details — and thus far there are few.

Massachusetts, which licenses some 167 trades and professions, is one of only a few states not to have a statewide police certification program — no doubt yet another testament to the influence on Beacon Hill of police unions. And key to any certification program is what it would take to decertify a police officer, effectively barring that officer from employment. Presumably any program worth the effort would set the bar higher than simply the commission of a felony; it should be possible to decertify an officer with repeated substantiated complaints, even if none of them lead to a criminal conviction.

Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that he has also been in talks with the Black and Latino Caucus for the past “six to nine months” on a certification program and said he would file legislation shortly on the issue, noting “there needs to be more transparency around law enforcement.”

And he added, “I’m very excited about the fact that a lot of these issues will be resolved before the end of the session.”

On the Senate side, President Karen Spilka named her own advisory group on racial justice, which held its first meeting Wednesday. She too vowed action “on policing and racial justice this session.”

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Cynthia Creem of Newton filed a bill with Representative Liz Miranda of Boston that would also ban chokeholds and create a “duty to intervene” for police who witness misconduct by fellow officers, similar to the House effort. But Creem would make the attorney general’s office a repository for all reports on any officer-involved incident involving injury or death, making the AG a kind of uber-civilian review board. 

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, in the national spotlight, has called for aggressive reforms that also ought to be seriously considered here, including charging the attorney general with investigations of officer-involved deaths, greater oversight and disciplinary reform, and investing in community services and groups that can serve as alternatives to policing.

Legislators and Baker need to aim for ideas that can have a lasting impact on policing in this state and on a police culture that cries out for change. For decades Beacon Hill has been in thrall to the political might — real or imagined — of police unions. Now it must answer to new voices. How quickly and effectively it does that will ultimately be the measure of lawmakers’ sincerity.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.

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