Activists and advocates who have long pushed Massachusetts lawmakers to hold police more accountable say a bill passed Tuesday provides some needed measures of reform, though more work remains.
“Many tens of thousands of people marched in Massachusetts in so many demonstrations, as they did around the country, asking them to address these issues and this does address not all, but at least some, of those issues,” activist Lew Finfer told GBH about the bill, now heading to Gov. Charlie Baker after it was passed by both the state House and Senate.
The bill would create an independent, civilian-run oversight board for investigating police misconduct and standardizing police training, certification, and decertification. Among other provisions, the measure would also ban chokehold use, impose a moratorium on facial recognition technology, and mandate that officers intervene when they witness another officer using unnecessary or unreasonable force.
The bill passed a day after it was released from a conference committee, where lawmakers hammered out the compromise legislation privately for several months.
Jamarhl Crawford, a community organizer, writer, and member of Mayor Marty Walsh’s Boston Police Reform Task Force, told GBH the bill was the result of the longstanding work of activists to inform legislators about persistent problems within law enforcement.
“Don’t think that this comes from the benevolence of government,” Crawford told the news station. “This came from decades of push from the grassroots and community folks, myself among them, who have pushed and prodded these people and informed these people on these issues for decades.”
Still, Crawford was skeptical whether the new bill would have its desired impact in practice.
“There’s no indication that decertification is going to improve police performance or community relations,” he said. “It just creates a mechanism by which these people can be held accountable.”
Other activists and supporters of the measure, including Rep. Ayanna Pressley, have said it falls short of adequately addressing and reforming qualified immunity for officers — the legal doctrine that shields officers from civil lawsuits. The bill removes qualified immunity only for officers who are decertified.
On Tuesday, Pressley urged lawmakers to pass the bill while also acknowledging they missed an opportunity to take action.
“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.”
Monica Cannon-Grant, an activist and founder of Violence in Boston, Inc., wrote on Twitter Wednesday the bill was “NOT what activist(s) are fighting for.”
“We demanded that qualified immunity be diminished,” she wrote. “This is the result of Law Makers refusing to talk to those on the ground while capitalizing on the BLM movement and coming up with a watered down version.”
2/2) To listen to @MassStatePolice and @bostonpolice defend the use of chokeholds after the deaths of #EricGarner and #GeorgeFloyd proves the racism, disrespect and disregard for Black Lives in Massachusetts. #DefundThePolice #BlsckLivesStillMatter pic.twitter.com/bZCYiPeE3B
— Monica Cannon-Grant 🌈 Accomplice (@ProRockThrower) December 2, 2020
Appearing on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” on Tuesday, however, ACLU Massachusetts President Carol Rose said the bill, even with compromises made, was a “huge step, a historic step, towards justice in the commonwealth.”
“This really reflects a lot of compromise, including some compromises from civil rights groups, but I think it’s really a step forward,” Rose said.
It was unclear Tuesday whether Baker would veto the bill or sign it into law.
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