Mass. governor threatens veto, sends police reform bill back to lawmakers

Gov. Charlie Baker objected to proposed restrictions on police use of facial recognition tech to solve crimes


By Erin Tiernan
Boston Herald

BOSTON — The fate of a set of sweeping police reforms debated in the Legislature for more than seven months is in jeopardy if lawmakers — who lack a veto-proof majority — refuse to compromise on a number of amendments Gov. Charlie Baker has added to the bill.

The Republican governor sent the bill back to the Legislature Thursday with amendments making changes to portions of the legislation dealing with facial recognition technology and police training.

Police step between demonstrators at a pro-police rally, left, and counterprotesters outside the Statehouse, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Boston.
Police step between demonstrators at a pro-police rally, left, and counterprotesters outside the Statehouse, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

In a Thursday afternoon memo to lawmakers, Baker agreed the bill "overall ... promotes improved police accountability" but nixed a number of provisions he said "introduce barriers to effective administration and the protection of public safety."

In no uncertain terms, Baker said he would not sign a bill that bans police from using facial recognition systems to solve crimes or leaves the development of training programs for police to a civilian-controlled commission.

Lawmakers are seeking to limit the use of the technology and only allow police to access Registry of Motor Vehicle databases with a warrant or in life-threatening emergencies.

"This is about making compromise and I'm ready to do that on almost everything with respect to improving accountability for law enforcement. But there are parts of this bill that were never part of that conversation about accountability that I can't support," Baker told the State House News Service.

The Legislature last week sent Baker a compromise bill that would create the state's first-ever licensing system for law enforcement, but lacked the necessary margins to override a veto.

The Senate mustered a veto-proof majority in a 28-12 vote, but the measure passed the House in a split 92-67 vote.

If lawmakers fail to compromise, they'll have to start from scratch when the new session begins next month.

Police reform legislation has been on the lips of civil rights and police leaders and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle after protests swept the nation this spring in the wake of the high-profile police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

The compromise bill includes a nine-member Peace Officer Standards and Training certification system that skews the balance toward the civilian side. It also attempts to deliver more widespread changes and begins to roll back qualified immunity protections, bans chokeholds and limits the use of tear gas and no-knock warrants.

Weighing in on the debate, the ACLU of Massachusetts urged legislators to "stand firm" and reject the governor's amendment to the reform bill, calling it a "crucial due process provision" that would protect against unregulated use of face surveillance technology proven to unfairly target Black and brown people.

"Unchecked police use of surveillance technology also harms everyone's rights to anonymity, privacy and free speech," said Executive Director Carol Rose.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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