Bill would bar Mass. cops from firing at fleeing vehicles, limit use of tear gas, rubber bullets

The $5 million bill came out of a racial justice advisory group launched in June after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor


By Steph Solis
MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.

A bill in the Massachusetts Senate spurred by the recent deaths of Black people in police custody would implement training reforms for police officers and codify a ban on racial profiling in policing. The bill also incorporates a host of proposals civil rights advocates have pushed over the legislative session.

These proposals range from banning the use of facial recognition data to collecting stop-and-frisk data from traffic stops to limiting what student information can be shared with law enforcement agencies and databases, reducing the chances that such information could be used by federal immigration authorities to deport teens.

(Photo/Boston Police Department)
(Photo/Boston Police Department)

The Senate’s $5 million bill, S.2800, came out of the racial justice advisory group launched in June after the deaths of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed when Louisville police raided her home around midnight March 13.

“Just about one month ago, I stood here on these steps with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and other elected leaders of color. I came to stand in solidarity with them and, more importantly, to listen, and what we all heard is while change is long overdue, that the time for action is now,” Senate President Karen Spilka said Monday as she gathered outside the Massachusetts State House with lawmakers and civil rights advocates. “We must seize this moment.”

Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, convened the racial justice advisory group in June as House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Wintrhop Democrat, and Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, pledged to pass police reform bills before the end of the legislative session on July 31.

The advisory group was led by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat and the only senator in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and Senate President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat. Other members include Sen. Nick Collins, a Boston Democrat; Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat; Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat; and Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Senate bill and previous proposals, is redirects public safety funds to pay for grants to provide job opportunities for low-income people, are victims of violence and formerly incarcerated people.

The bill would create a Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to make grants for employment opportunity programs. Chang-Diaz said Monday the state would pay for it by computing the money the state has saved each year since the criminal justice reform law of 2018, as the number of incarcerated people has started to fall.

Chang-Diaz said the state would have to devote up to $10 million every year into the fund. She calls it a tactic for “re-prioritizing our public safety dollars away from policing, away from corrections and into investment and things that are going to get us into a virtuous cycle of prevention and community uplift.”

The provision is the closest the Legislature has come to answering calls to “defund the police,” or as some protesters and lawmakers describe it, re-allocating money from police budgets to social services and other resources in communities of color.

Baker announced his own police reform bill in June after working with the BLLC. His legislation would implement a Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, system that certifies officers and decertifies problem officers within the state.

Baker’s bill would also require officers to renew their certification every year and pay officers bonuses if they obtained a certain level of training. Advocates and community organizers who have led the protests in the wake of Taylor and Floyd’s deaths criticized the bill and called for a reallocation of resources from police budgets into social services and other resources that serve communities of color.

The Senate bill introduces a similar system to certify and, if problems arise, decertify officers in Massachusetts that would be overseen by the Police Officers Standards and Accreditation Committee. Officers would need to renew their certification with at least 120 hours of training every three years.

Unlike Baker’s bill, the legislation would allow the POSAC to receive and investigate misconduct complaints about officers; Baker’s bill only authorizes POSAC to begin decertification proceedings if there is at least one sustained internal affairs complaint.

The Senate bill would also create a publicly available database containing information about a law enforcement officer’s certification status. It also would clarify that the results of a misconduct investigation involving a law enforcement official is public record.

The Senate bill creates multiple requirements for the Municipal Police Training Committee, the agency that trains local police officers. The committee would need to set policies and standards for use of force and incorporate education on the history of slavery, lynching, racist legal institutions and racism into its training curriculum, among other things.

Under the bill, the committee’s policies and standards for training would apply to the MBTA police, campus police officers and deputy sheriffs. Training for the Massachusetts State Police would need to include or be equivalent to the training the committee provides to local police.

The Senate bill would also ban the use of choke holds, bar an officer from firing his gun at a fleeing vehicle, unless it’s to “prevent imminent harm” and limit the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and dogs on people.

“If they’re ever used in a crowd setting, that incident has to be reported to the oversight committee, the POSAC, and the POSAC has to conduct an investigation and determine whether that use was appropriate and justified,” Brownsberger said. “Part of that investigation is to ascertain whether the police attempted to engage the [individuals] and have that pre-event conversation that intrinsically can reduce the probability of violence.”

One provision sparked by the death of Taylor, a former EMT whose house was raided by Louisville police, requires that a “no-knock” warrant be issued by a judge and requires that such a warrant only be issued if there’s probable cause that knocking would endanger the lives of the officers or of others.

Brownsberger said officers can currently get a “no-knock” warrant because they believe a suspect could take the time to flush drugs down the toilet. “No longer a reason to get a no-knock warrant,” he said. “Only safety.

Privacy protections

Several provisions of the bill not only reform police training, but incorporate provisions for which civil rights advocates say will protect an individual’s privacy.

The most notable provision is a ban on government use of facial recognition until Dec. 31, 2021. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has spent the past year pushing for a moratorium on biometric surveillance tools, convincing cities and towns across the state to pass their own bans.

“Systemic racism and the dangers of facial surveillance technology won’t evaporate into thin air on that date,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ racial justice program, adding that Springfield, Boston and other municipalities have passed their own bans on the technology. “We ask that the Legislature follow suit by taking this a step further.”

The bill also requires a school resource officer only if requested by the superintendent and bars school personnel from sharing information from its databases or other systems with a law enforcement officer or agency. The bill also bars sharing information to any database designed to track gang affiliation or involvement, a possible reference to the Boston Regional Information Center.

The information-sharing network was created in 2005 to reduce crime and prevent terrorism. Yet the system has come under scrutiny in recent years as federal immigration authorities have used it in deportation proceedings. In March 2018, an East Boston High School student named Orlando was arrested by ICE agents after a school resource officer shared a report about a lunchroom fight with the BRIC. He was accused of being involved in a gang and deported to El Salvador.

The bill also seeks to clarify that a person may petition to have more than one charge or case expunged before the person’s 21st birthday.

Overtime abuse

The Senate bill also tackles some overtime abuse reforms in the aftermath of a scandal that embroiled the Massachusetts State Police.

The bill would impose higher damages of a law enforcement officer who is paid for knowingly submitting a false claim of hours worked.

Under the bill, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security would have to create and implement a process by which troopers’ details are assigned by a civilian employer or contractor.

Dozens of troopers were flagged by a Massachusetts State Police audit in 2018 as being involved in the overtime scandal that embroiled the now-disbanded Troop E. They were accused of skipping specialized overtime shifts, and in some cases submitting fraudulent citations to make it appear they were working the shift, or showing up for partial shifts while conducting traffic enforcement.

Ten troopers were charged in either federal or state court, and several of them have been sentenced.

In the two years since, the agency has changed colonels, and the governor filed legislation that in part would impose stricter penalties for those who submit false claims for hours worked.

Like the governor’s bill, the Senate bill authorizes the governor to appoint a colonel from outside the ranks of the state police. The colonel would be authorized to create a state police cadet program and apply the bill’s training requirements to the state police. The bill also amends eligibility requirements for promotion in the state police.

Under the bill, the colonel would be allowed to discipline or suspend without pay an officer in certain circumstances. The disciplinary action could not happen before a departmental hearing.

A suspension without pay could not be appealable to the Civil Service Commission, which came under scrutiny after overturning the suspensions of four troopers implicated in the overtime abuse scandal. The action could be appealed in Superior Court.

Traffic stops

The distracted driving bill Baker signed into law in November requires data collection about race in police stops, but Hall of the ACLU of Massachusetts said at the time the final legislation was inadequate because only traffic stops ending in citation will be tracked. A similar law is already in place, the State House News Service reported.

The Senate bill brings back the provision to record statistical data whenever a person is stopped and frisked or search. It also requires an officer to provide a receipt of a stop of a car or pedestrian that didn’t result in a citation.

Under the bill, police departments would have to conduct a quarterly review of stop-and-search records. Each department would have to submit an annual report to the municipality and publish it online.

“The work we need to do on racial justice is both a sprint and a marathon, and the members of this working group have done incredible work on this first sprint,” Spilka said, “but I promise that this will not be the last you hear from us on this issue.”

©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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