Local

Most police to be recertified despite lawsuit against oversight commission

The state's new police oversight commission is recertifying the first batch of officers under a 2020 law.

About 71% of officers in Massachusetts have all needed information to be recertified by the state's new police oversight commission submitted. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The state’s new police oversight commission, which was created with the goal of improving policing standards, will process the first batch of Massachusetts police officers up for recertification.

But the commission, called the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST Commission), has encountered many roadblocks during its first year of duties.

Despite a deadline of June 15 to submit recertification materials, State House News Service (SHNS) reported that by the beginning of the month, only 172 of the 439 agencies under the commission’s purview, or 40%, had even interacted with the online portal where they are to submit the materials.

Now, as the July 1 deadline for police officer recertification nears, about 88% of police departments in Massachusetts have submitted all needed information to the Commission, SHNS reported Tuesday.

Advertisement:

Additionally, about 85% of those officers, which only includes officers with last names beginning with A through H, will be recertified by the commission, SHNS reported.

But as the recertification process continues, some police organizations and unions are still pushing back against the commission by criticizing the way it’s gone about its duties.

In April, those police organizations filed a lawsuit against the commission, and some unions have told their members not to complete parts of the certification process they object to, which complicates their recertification.

Last week, several police organizations sought an injunction against filling out the recertification questionnaire, which includes questions about whether officers have been sued or disciplined for acting violently.

The police organizations have called the questionnaire “highly invasive, improper, unfair, and irrational.”

The outcome of the lawsuit and the questionnaire has yet to be decided.

Where the commission is in the process

The POST Commission was created in late 2020 as part of a criminal justice reform bill passed by the Massachusetts Legislature in the wake of the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by police. It is tasked with recertifying police officers every three years, and can decertify them as well.

As of Tuesday, 387 of the 439 law enforcement agencies within the commission’s scope had completed this process, SHNS reported. This information covers 6,127 officers, amounting to about 71% of the officers who need to be recertified at this time.

Advertisement:

About 2,200 officers, or 25% of officers who need to be recertified, belong to departments that have been granted 30-day extensions to submit all necessary information, SHNS reported. Among these departments are the state’s two largest — Massachusetts State Police and Boston Police.

POST Commission Executive Director Enrique Zuniga told SHNS Tuesday that the biggest reason these departments filed for an extension was that they needed more time to complete the extensive process.

There are another 27 agencies that have not submitted recertification information and haven’t asked for an extension, SHNS reported. Zuniga told the news service that these departments are very small and may simply not have any officers whose last names end in A through H.

How many officers will be recertified?

Of the 6,127 officers the POST Commission has all the needed information for, 5,205 officers, or 85%, are set to be recertified with no exceptions, SHNS reported.

Another 645 officers, or 11%, are set to be conditionally recertified, SHNS reported. This means they will need to get some kind of additional training, such as CPR certification, within 90 days to be recertified.

An unreported number of the 645 officers who will be conditionally recertified will fall into that category because their recertification questionnaire was either incomplete or completed but marked as “with exceptions,” the news service reported.

Advertisement:

In some cases, SHNS reported, the officer was simply out on leave when the questionnaire was to be completed via interview, but in others, the questionnaire was not completed because of a “union concern” with the questionnaire.

“I don’t know any more details than ‘union concern,’ but that’s a direct quote from the explanation they provided,” Zuniga said. “Whatever the concern might be, our position is and will be that they have to go conduct that questionnaire and they will have 90 days to do that.”

Zuniga told the POST Commission that “at this point, there’s nobody that will be in the category of non-certified,” but said 69 officers’ applications “merit further review,” SHNS reported.

Police issues with the commission and recertification process

The presidents of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, who filed the suit against the POST Commission, released a statement against the commission Tuesday.

In the statement, the presidents accuse the commission of having a “consistent disregard” for its duties, and of violating state open meeting laws and reducing transparency and public input by making important decisions in secret.

The presidents begin by highlighting that the commission is tasked with determining whether police officers have “good moral character and fitness for employment.”

“There is probably no issue more fundamental to the legitimacy of the POST Commission than its development of a clear definition of this standard, and consistent application of it,” they wrote in their statement.

Instead, they say, the commission had over 400 police departments separately and independently evaluate their officers with no guidance from the commission.

Local

“This passing of the buck likely has resulted in many different definitions of ‘good moral character and fitness for employment,'” the presidents wrote.

Advertisement:

After many inquiries and their lawsuit, the presidents say, the commission finally defined what the phrase meant on June 8, 2021 — a week before recertification information to the commission was due.

The presidents say the POST Commission ultimately adopted language from the International Association of Chiefs of Police Code of Ethics as part of the standard, which includes the phrase “dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession.”

“The adoption of clearly religious language as part of the POST Commission’s ethical guidelines is inconsistent with the principles of sound policing practices, and potentially violates the right of every officer – and every American – to have the rules and regulations governing their employment be free of religious bias,” the presidents wrote.

Police issues with the recertification questionnaire

In their statement, the presidents also claim that at least four of the commission’s recertification questions violate officers’ constitutional rights or other legal protections if they are required to answer them as a condition of certification.

The eight-question-long questionnaire asks:

  1. Whether officers are current on all tax payments
  2. Whether they have a license to carry a firearm and whether that’s ever been revoked
  3. Whether they’ve ever been a defendant in a civil suit in which it was alleged that they acted violently or abusively, or used excessive force
  4. Whether they’ve ever been the subject of a restraining order or been found in violation of one
  5. Whether they’ve been suspended for more than five days
  6. Whether they’ve made social media posts in the last five years that could lead people to think they are biased against a minority
  7. Whether they’ve, at any point in their life, been a member of a group that unlawfully discriminated against a minority
  8. Whether there’s any other information relevant to the previous questions they belief should be mentioned.

“The questions improperly involve matters of free speech and free expression, religious affiliation and religious beliefs, private and personal financial information, and a request for overly vague and undefined personal assessments. They also violate core privacy interests of law enforcement officers,” the presidents wrote.

As a result, they said, they and other organizations filed for a preliminary injunction against the commission and the recertification process in Suffolk Superior Court on June 17. The matter was taken under advisement.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com