‘Angry would be an understatement’: Mass. police unions cry foul over Senate-backed reform bill

“We cannot correct centuries of wrongdoing in a few weeks. This is what this bill seeks to do."

The Massachusetts State House
–Elise Amendola / AP, File

Massachusetts police unions are outraged over the passing of a police reform bill in the state Senate this week, saying lawmakers largely kept them out of conversations on crafting the legislation and rushed the proposal through the upper chamber.

The bill, known as the “Reform, Shift + Build Act,” passed early Tuesday morning by a 30-7 vote, would limit the “qualified immunity” that protects officers from facing civil lawsuits, mandate officers to undergo a certification process, and place restrictions on the use of chokeholds and tear gas.

The vote and proposal comes amid the national, civic unrest since the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis in May, which has spurred protests calling for attention to the longstanding ramifications of systemic racism and police brutality against people of color.

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“This Reform, Shift + Build Act meets the urgency of this moment,” Senate President Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday. “There is no doubt that we are in a difficult moment, both nationally and in our Commonwealth, but I’m proud of the Senate for listening to calls for racial justice and beginning the difficult work of reducing institutionalized violence, shifting our focus and resources to communities that have historically been negatively impacted by aggressive policing, and introducing many creative ideas to build greater equity and fairness in our Commonwealth.”

Senators passed the bill following 17 continuous hours of debate and just about a week after the proposal was first presented to the public, according to the Boston Herald.

Police unions across the state — some who have argued that officers should not have to face the potential of having a lawsuit filed against them while on the job — have criticized the bill as rushed legislation that was put together without their input.

Lawmakers did not hold any hearings on the proposal, nor did they hear any testimony, the Herald reports.

“Under the cover of darkness, while all the general public was sleeping and the brave men and women — the police officers in blue — were providing that protection that allows us to rest peacefully through the night, the Senate rammed through a 72-page document,” Boston Police Patrolmen Association President Lawrence Calderone told reporters Tuesday.

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Expressing his frustration that the Senate plowed ahead with the bill, he said, “Angry would be an understatement.”

“Because of what happened in Minneapolis, many law enforcement agencies across the commonwealth are being painted with one brush, so we’re mad about it,” Calderone added, according to WHDH. “We’re angry about it. Boston, Massachusetts in general, is not Minneapolis.”

James Machado, executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, said the union tried to show lawmakers a few of what he called “unintended consequences” the bill would bring forth, but the group’s proposals were ultimately rejected.

“We cannot support a measure which takes handcuffs off drug dealers and gang bangers and puts them on police, allows criminal records to disappear while tearing open police personnel files, and allows criminals to appeal for monetary damages while denying police due process to appeal for their job,” Machado said in a statement.

Under the proposal, officers would be required to use de-escalation tactics when possible and would have “a duty to intervene” when witnessing colleagues abusing force protocols.

Qualified immunity will remain for police under the bill, so long as “a public official, including law enforcement, is acting in accordance with the law,” according to lawmakers.

The bill does not impact or limit existing indemnification protections for public officials, according to a press release issued by Spilka’s office.

A police certification system established in the bill would allow for decertifying officers who violate regulations and procedures.

The Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee — an independent state group of law enforcement officials, racial justice advocates, and residents with legal, criminal justice, and social science expertise — would be created by the bill and standardize certification, training, and decertification of police officers.

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Calderone said Tuesday there are parts of the bill he thinks are positive improvements, such as banning officers from shooting into moving vehicles, except in certain situations; prohibiting police from using chokeholds; and the creation of the standards committee, according to The Boston Globe.

He said a few of those points were born out of “constructive and diplomatic dialogue” with Democratic Springfield state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, who helms the Black and Latino Caucus.

But Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and a Boston police sergeant, said the bill, having been developed over only a few weeks without widespread input, won’t make the meaningful changes in how law enforcement interacts with the public, the Globe reports.

“If we’re really talking about issues of systemic racism, how police officers interact with Black and brown communities, this bill doesn’t do it,” Chrispin said. “And for anybody to think that this is going to address the issues that have existed in policing in a way that some of us engage Black and brown communities, this is far, far, far from it. You can’t fix something like that with a 70-page bill that’s rushed. Absolutely impossible.”

The House Committee on Ways and Means will now pick up the bill.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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