Politics

Ayanna Pressley backs new Massachusetts police reform bill — even if it ‘falls short’

"Massachusetts has missed an opportunity to lead by ensuring that those responsible for upholding the law are subject to it too."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley during a press conference last month in front of the Massachusetts State House. Pat Greenhouse / The Boston Globe

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Rep. Ayanna Pressley says Massachusetts state lawmakers should “swiftly” pass the compromise police reform bill released Monday evening.

However, she also isn’t pulling any punches about where she feels the legislation “falls short.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Pressley praised many aspects of the wide-ranging bill, but said it “does not go far enough” to reform the controversial legal doctrine known as qualified immunity that protects law enforcement officers and other government officials from being held personally liable for conduct unless it violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”

Police reform advocates have criticized the legal threshold as making it almost impossible to sue individual officers for reckless actions like excessive use of force — though law enforcement unions argue it allows them to do their jobs without the fear of frivolous lawsuits.

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The initial bills passed by Massachusetts House and Senate this past summer included differing provisions to roll back qualified immunity. Ultimately, the new compromise legislation released Monday — after months of private negotiations between the chambers to merge the two bills — adopted the more limited reforms included in the House bill, eliminating qualified immunity only for officers who have been decertified by a new police oversight board and creating a commission to study and recommend additional reforms on the subject.

Pressley said Tuesday that legislators were missing an opportunity.

“For far too long, the doctrine of qualified immunity has protected the very people charged with enforcing the law from any consequence for breaking it, allowing police officers to use their badge as a shield from accountability,” the Boston Democrat said. “The legislation does not go far enough to address this systemic problem. By merely creating a commission to study the impact of qualified immunity in the Commonwealth, and limiting immunity only for decertified officers, rather than ending the harmful doctrine outright, Massachusetts has missed an opportunity to lead by ensuring that those responsible for upholding the law are subject to it too.”

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In the wake of the racial justice demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Colorado became the first state to reform qualified immunity in July.

Pressley, who introduced federal legislation in June to completely abolish qualified immunity, has pressed Massachusetts state lawmakers on the subject before. In July, she and Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged legislators against weakening the language included in the Senate bill, which would have lowered the legal standard for all public officials.

“In any other occupation in America, there are standards of conduct and consequences for violating them—doctors can be sued for malpractice, lawyers can be sued for negligence,” Pressley said at the time. “Policing should be no exception.”

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Warren’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

State Sen. Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and his chamber’s lead negotiator, told The Boston Globe on Monday that it was necessary to compromise on qualified immunity in order to pass other measures (though Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both chambers). Brownsberger specifically named the new oversight board, which he said would “change policing.”

And despite her qualms, Pressley did say Tuesday that other “long overdue” reforms ultimately make the bill worth passing, such as a statewide ban on chokeholds, new limits on no-knock warrants, codified standards on the use of force, limits on facial recognition technology, and provisions to “reduce the over-policing and criminalization of children in our schools.”

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The state Senate voted to approve the compromise bill Tuesday afternoon by a vote of 28-12, with some more moderate Democrats breaking from the super-majority to join Republicans in opposition.If the House also approves the bill, it will then go to the desk of Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has yet to take a position of the legislation.

While she reiterated that “there can be no true accountability with qualified immunity,” Pressley encouraged Baker and her State House colleagues on Tuesday to “swiftly enact this bill into law.”

“We will continue fighting for bold legislation that matches the scale and scope of the hurt so many are feeling,” she said. “We will not back down in our pursuit of true justice and accountability.”

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