Mass. lawmakers strike deal on landmark police reform bill

The long-stalled bill will create a certification system for officers but backs off on changes to qualified immunity

By Erin Tiernan
Boston Herald

BOSTON — Lawmakers on Monday struck a deal on a long-stalled landmark police reform bill that would institute a certification system for officers but backs off substantial changes to qualified immunity protections from liability.

"The compromise reached, which is intentional in bringing better transparency and accountability to policing in Massachusetts, represents one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform and racial justice in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd," Senate President Karen Spilka and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo said in a joint statement.

A passer-by walks through a nearly empty intersection near the Old State House, right, in downtown Boston, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
A passer-by walks through a nearly empty intersection near the Old State House, right, in downtown Boston, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The bill, "An Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement" lays a "foundation" to reshape policing in the Commonwealth and "to build toward racial justice and equity," they said.

Filed Monday, the bill represents a compromise between House and Senate versions passed in July and drafted at the height of protests around police killings of unarmed Black people following the high-profile deaths of Breonna Taylor and Floyd.

It creates a framework for certifying police officers and bans chokeholds, setting a basis for acceptable uses of force. It also includes a provision to limit no-knock police warrants in instances where children or people over 65 are present — which was first pitched by Boston Rep. Liz Miranda.

Missing from the bill is any substantial change to qualified immunity, which protects police from liability in some circumstances even if they have violated a person's rights. Both bills had attempted to limit the doctrine to varying degrees, generating massive opposition from police groups.

Instead, the bill creates an independent commission to study the qualified immunity doctrine and the impact of limiting those protections on law enforcement.

It does include language that would revoke civil liability protections for an officer over actions that result in decertification.

Boston Police Patrolman's Association President Larry Calderone, a vocal opponent of changes to qualified immunity and the rules surrounding use-of-force, said he was still digesting the 129-page bill when reached by phone on Monday night.

Calderone said a commission to study the qualified immunity issue is "acceptable."

"What we don't want them to do is to have a knee-jerk reaction and change qualified immunity," Calderone said.

Lawmakers vowed to deliver swift action on a police reform bill this summer as mass protests against police brutality swept the nation following the killing of Floyd — an unarmed Black man — by Minneapolis police.

But they blew past their July 31 deadline and efforts stalled behind closed doors on Beacon Hill, where a committee of six House and Senate members hashed out the compromise during secret negotiations over four months.

The revised bill must now pass the House and Senate before it lands on Gov. Charlie Baker's desk. The Republican governor has already signaled his support for a bill that would introduce a certification system for police.

The House has planned a full formal session Tuesday when it is expected to vote on the bill. The Senate is also due to meet in a formal session without a calendar.

(c)2020 the Boston Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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