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Massachusetts lawmakers finalize police accountability bill

The new law would create a civilian-led commission to standardize the certification, training and decertification of police officers.

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BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts House and Senate are expected to vote as early as Tuesday on a compromise bill backers say would increase police accountability — including, for the first time, creating an independent, civilian-led commission to standardize the certification, training and decertification of police officers,

The bill would also ban the use of chokeholds, limit the use of deadly force, and create a duty to intervene for police officers when witnessing another officer using force beyond what is necessary or reasonable under the circumstances.

The legislation would also take steps to break the school-to-prison pipeline and create what lawmakers described as a first-in-the-nation statewide moratorium on biometric surveillance systems, which include facial recognition technology.

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The legislation is the product of months of closed-door negotiations meant to hammer out a compromise bill between separate bills approved by the House and Senate earlier this year. A final vote is needed in both chambers before the bill can be sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo said in a joint statement that the bill represents “one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform and racial justice in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd.”

“Our approach strikes a balance that will provide greater protections for the rights of all residents through a strong police officer certification process via a new, independent agency, and setting clear standards for training and use of force, while providing a wider range of tools for law enforcement to provide for the safety of the public,” the Democrats said.

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A key element of the bill is the creation of a Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. The majority of members of the independent state entity would be civilians. The commission would have independent power to investigate misconduct.

The commission would serve as the civil enforcement agency to certify, restrict, revoke, or suspend certification for officers, agencies and academies. It would also be able to refer cases for criminal prosecution and report annually to the Legislature, governor, and the attorney general.

The commission would also maintain a publicly available database of decertified officers, officer certification suspensions, and officer retraining.

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Baker declined to comment directly about the bill Tuesday, saying his office hadn’t had time to study the legislation, which was released late Monday. But Baker said the issue of police accountability is important to him.

“I’m glad the Legislature is moving forward on this,” Baker said.

In a letter to members, Massachusetts’ largest law enforcement union called the bill a “final attack on police officers by lawmakers on Beacon Hill.”

Scott Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, wrote that the proposed Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission would be able to revoke an officer’s certification before even a complete internal investigation or disciplinary hearing occurs.

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“What was supposed to be a reasonable and thoughtful process to establish sensible police reforms is now a runaway train that must be stopped,” the union wrote, urging its more than 4,000 members to contact their lawmakers.

The bill would also make clear that qualified immunity shall not extend to a law enforcement officer who “violates a person’s right to bias-free professional policing if that conduct results in the officer’s decertification.”

Efforts to limit qualified immunity — which largely protects police from being civilly liable for excessive use of force — have come under criticism from police unions and their supporters who argue that officers should not have to worry about potential lawsuits while on patrol.

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The legislation is in part a response to statewide demonstrations following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer contributed to this report.

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