Shortly, the Governor will decide whether to approve a major policing reform package.
The legislature sent him the bill after hours of emotional debate, months of emotional negotiation and thousands of emotional comments by people on both sides of the issue. If approved, it will make a real difference in policing in Massachusetts.
There are many brave and honorable police officers in this state and there are many excellent police leaders as well. Some of them take personally the proposition that improvement is needed. That is unfortunate. We need to keep reassuring them that we do not mean to question their commitment, integrity, or competence.
At the same time, we need to recognize that we can do better. We need to admit that there are some departments in the state where civilian complaints of mistreatment are badly neglected. One need look no further than the recent United States Department of Justice investigation into the police department in the City of Springfield.
Citizens – and honorable police officers — do need stronger protection from rogue officers and the package before the Governor will offer that protection. At the heart of the package is a new statewide oversight agency for policing: The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST).
The POST will have the power to directly receive a complaint of misconduct from any source. Additionally, all law enforcement agencies in the state will have to promptly report to the POST any complaints that they receive.
The POST has the power to certify officers and the power to decertify them. Without certification by the POST, law enforcement officers cannot work in law enforcement. In response to serious misconduct, the POST may choose to consider suspending or decertifying an officer. It will be much harder to bury a complaint of serious misconduct.
That does not mean that officers will be presumed to be in the wrong when a complaint is filed. On the contrary, they will benefit from strong procedural protections. When a complaint is made, officers will usually go through the local discipline process as they do now. But the result of that process will be reported to the POST and the POST will have the resources to independently investigate if it deems it necessary.
If the POST opens an investigation and concludes that an officer’s conduct merits a suspension or decertification, the POST may impose a preliminary suspension, but only after a hearing and a finding that the weight of the evidence favors a finding against the officer. During a preliminary suspension, an officer may remain on the agency payroll.
A final suspension or decertification can only be imposed upon “clear and convincing evidence”. That is a very high bar – professionals in other fields can typically lose their license on lesser findings. It makes sense that police officers should have a somewhat higher threshold for losing their license – they are often in an adversarial relationship with people that they arrest and they can draw complaints even when they behave professionally.
The POST commission will consist of nine members appointed by the Governor and the Attorney General. The commission will include three police officers, three civilians and three additional civilians nominated from lists submitted by the National Association of Social Workers, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and the civil rights and social justice section of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
POST commissions, in the other 46 states that have them, are completely dominated by law enforcement officers. Due to their make up and/or their limited powers, POST commissions in other states have allowed tragic abuses to continue, leading to civil unrest.
In departing from national precedent by creating a majority civilian commission with great power, we hope to give citizens confidence in the commission’s independence and to assure that real transparency and accountability come to law enforcement in Massachusetts.
More information available here.