We need an independent state board with authority to certify police officers, receive civilian complaints, investigate serious police misconduct, and decertify officers when serious misconduct or a pattern of lesser misconduct is proven.
We have many honorable police officers in Massachusetts and many well-run police departments. But we should not imagine that the troubles documented in the Justice Department’s recent report on Springfield are entirely unique. That report proves that we cannot rely solely on agency disciplinary procedures to assure the quality of law enforcement.
The Senate’s Reform-Shift-Build Act, passed in the Senate on July 14, would create the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee, (POSAC).
The POSAC would function like the other professional licensing boards in the state. Police officers would need certification in order to work in their field and could lose their certification if they fail to uphold the standards of their profession.
The Governor would appoint 14 members of the POSAC: six law enforcement officers, seven civilians, and one retired judge. The Governor would choose from prescribed categories to assure representation of different types of police agencies among the six law enforcement officers and an orientation to justice improvement among the civilians. The civilian appointees would include 1 nominated by the ACLU, 2 by the NAACP, 1 by Lawyers for Civil Rights, 2 by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and 1 personally involved in the criminal justice system. Additionally, the Attorney General would appoint 1 member from an advocacy organization for communities with high police interaction.
Members of the POSAC would be compensated and they would have the power to hire an executive director and employ necessary attorneys, investigators and support staff.
The POSAC would initially certify officers who have completed required basic training and would recertify them every three years provided they complete required in-service training. The POSAC will maintain a database of police officers to be used by prospective employers. The database would include certification status as well as separations from employment, sustained complaints,and criminal convictions. The data would be a public record and a subset of the data, including more serious sustained complaints, would be available to the public for review in a searchable online database.
The POSAC would have the authority to directly receive complaints from the public, and police agencies would be required to promptly report to the POSAC any complaints lodged through them. The POSAC would track all complaints to start to resolution. It would report on progress in resolution of outstanding complaints by each department, while keeping unsustained complaints confidential.
The legislation requires decertification of a police officer if complaints for certain offenses are proved to the POSAC by clear and convincing evidence. The offenses which require decertification include felony convictions, hate crimes, intentional false arrest or falsification of evidence, bribery or serious violations of use of force standards. The POSAC may also decertify an officer if a pattern of lesser offenses is proved.
The POSAC would have the authority to conduct its own investigation of a complaint or could choose to rely on the investigation by the employing law enforcement agency. In all cases involving allegations serious enough to require decertification if proved, the POSAC would conduct its own investigation, but this would not preclude the employing law enforcement agency from also investigating a complaint and imposing discipline.
Today, when an officer is charged with some form of misconduct, there will normally be an internal investigation, followed by a factual finding and disciplinary ruling by the Chief of Police, followed, perhaps, by an appeal to the appointing authority if other than the Chief. For example, in some towns, the final internal appeal might be to the Board of Selectmen.
Beyond all internal appeals, depending on the community, there may be additional appeals to the civil service commission or to labor arbitration. In labor arbitration, the police union and management jointly select an arbitrator and the arbitrator resolves the appropriate level of discipline.
An important subject of debate was how the POSAC’s process should relate to civil service appeals or labor arbitration. The legislation provides explicitly that POSAC actions should not be appealable to civil service, and there is no employment relationship between the POSAC and the police officer, so collective bargaining is not applicable. In that respect, POSAC is like any other licensing board: A professional with a complaint can be disciplined by their employer and separately by the licensing board.
During debate about the POSAC, some senators proposed that a complaint would not be deemed “sustained” until completion of all appeals to civil service or arbitration. This would delay and could prevent POSAC’s consideration of decertification based on a police chief’s findings.
This proposal was presented as solving a “due process” issue. However, the POSAC itself provides due process, allowing the officer to be present with counsel in any hearing. Normally a licensing board functions entirely separately from employer discipline.
In a compromise, we agreed to allow an officer to delay their POSAC decertification for up to one year, but not more, to allow for them to resolve appeals of agency discipline. This will not delay or prevent the inclusion of the agency-sustained complaint in the public facing complaint database. However, it may allow the officer to address personal problems and make a better presentation to the POSAC at the decertification hearings.
If an officer is decertified, the employing agency can fire them without any appeal to civil service, but we did not explicitly prohibit bargaining about termination. A decertified police officer cannot work as a police officer, but we left open the possibility that an agency could continue to employ them in a civilian capacity.
It is the hope and belief of the senate that allowing citizens to appeal directly to an independent state board with its own power to investigate will lead to the swifter and more reliable identification and removal of abusive officers. The vast majority of officers are honorable and they, like the public, will benefit significantly once the board is fully established and well known by the public.