Police Reform

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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7 Comments

  1. This looks like an encouraging step toward social justice
    and accountability. Sending complaints to an independent
    commission that has representatives of law enforcement
    but is not dominated by it should benefit both citizens in general
    and the officers charged with protecting them.

  2. Thanks for all your hard work on this bill, Senator. I’m not well informed on the issue, but it sounds like a reasonable compromise that might prevent harm.

    But if the police union wants an adversarial stance I’m sure there are members of the civilian public whose ends that serves. Did I miss the part describing state police budget cuts? Like I say, I know nothing, but them flexing their muscle too much could make a guy take note of how often he sees state police cars vs. how often he sees MBTA buses.

    Must confess I’m relishing Gov. Teflon having to take a public stance on something where there’s not 85% agreement. After Legal Seafoods’ lobster he’s got to be the most overrated thing in this state, a.k.a. Mr. let’s-not-rush-into-reopening-rollbacks-what’s-6000-new-cases.

  3. Hi, Will,
    Thanks for your very informative and helpful explanation of the POST.
    One question: Why is it called “Peace” Officers and not “Police” Officers?
    Best to you and your family, and stay well!

  4. Thanks for the summary! With everything else going on it has been hard to follow the developments on this bill, but it looks like a great step forward.

  5. I really hope the Governor signs this real and compromise reform. It will only enhance resident respect for their local police officers and allow for people who go over the line to be adjudicated appropriately. Transparency and fairness are key.

    Besides POST I look forward to the many tweaks that improve upon fulfilling the intent of the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. And that work to decrease institutionalized racism in the Commonwealth.

  6. I want to add that now that Baker has added facial recognition as part of his poison pill he’s throwing back at you, I dislike him that much more. First, as Ayanna Pressley eloquently pointed out on NPR this morning our technologies, AI and facial recognition, have inherited our racial biases. But even if that problem were fixed I’m dead against facial recognition and hope that you won’t accept that amendment.

    Why is this needed? Where is the crime wave? Terrorism? Okay we had those two nutter brothers but what would facial recognition have accomplished back then? Not a whole lot. On the other side, like all state surveillance technology, there is the problem of abuse (remember the screen shot of Boston police in the “fusion center” looking over environmental groups’ shoulders?) and the chilling effect it might have on public protest. Have we forgotten Edward Snowden’s sacrifice already?

    I can only think that Baker is coming at this with friends in the tech. industry whose companies would benefit.

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