Baker Signs Police Reform Legislation; Chief Kyes, Police Leaders take Wait-and-see Approach

After months and months of controversy at the State House, Gov. Charlie Baker on Dec. 31 signed “An Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” a controversial piece of legislation that creates a mandatory certification process for police officers, increases accountability and transparency in law enforcement and gives police departments a greater ability to hire or promote only qualified applicants.

Both of Chelsea’s state delegation members voted in favor of the final bill that Gov. Baker signed.

The bill reached an apex of consternation last year for lawmakers as many found themselves between strong voices for police reform in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, and also strong voices for the support of the vast amount of police officers that do the right thing day in and day out. It was a balancing act that took debate to a heated level from every angle before the bill entered into a conference committee in the fall and went quiet. However, in December, the bill came out in a compromise piece that, after some back and forth with the governor, came out in final form and was signed just before the calendar turned over from 2020 on New Year’s Eve.

“This bill is the product of bipartisan cooperation and thanks to the Black and Latino Caucus’ leadership on the hugely important issue of law enforcement accountability, Massachusetts will have one of the best laws in the nation,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “Police officers have enormously difficult jobs and we are grateful they put their lives on the line every time they go to work. Thanks to final negotiations on this bill, police officers will have a system they can trust and our communities will be safer for it.”

Said former Speaker Bob DeLeo, “I am proud that the House lived up to its vow of listening to folks with lived experience in enacting one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd. My unyielding gratitude to Speaker Mariano and Chairs Cronin, Michlewitz and González for their persistent effort to improve our law enforcement system. I am confident that the House of Representatives will build on this achievement in the time ahead and am humbled that legislation which promotes fairness and equality are part of the House’s legacy.”

Wait and See for Police

For police advocates, such as Chelsea Chief Brian Kyes (who is also the president of the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police organization), there are some things that are of concern, and things to wait and see about.

Kyes said after the process played out later in the year, he and the Chiefs organization felt it was a good piece of legislation that in the long run will improve policing.

“There’s no real concern,” he said. “It’s an incredibly complex piece of legislation. There are some new chapters and sections created in the law. There is a new Commission created, the POST, or Peace Officer Standards and Training…In the meantime, there will be a lot of work to get the POST Commission running. It will be challenging to get that going…There are a lot of moving parts to get this up and running, but in the long run it will definitely be worth it. It will take time to work out the kinks, but will it overall enhance the professionalism of law enforcement in our state – I think the answer is that, yes, it will.”

The POST has been a note of controversy for Kyes and the Chiefs over the past several months, mostly due to the composition of the Commission being primarily civilians that would oversee conduct of policing. The nine-member POST in the final bill is made up of three members of law enforcement (one police chief, one union representative and one minority law enforcement officer). The other six are civilians and must be an attorney, a member of the Mass Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), a social worker, a retired Superior Court judge, and appointees by the governor or Attorney General.

“They’ll all be professional people and will be there for the right reasons,” he said.

He said one unfortunate outcome from the police perspective is the idea that many put forth that chokeholds – which is what killed Floyd – needed to be outlawed, and gave the impression officers in Massachusetts use them. He said no one is trained to use chokeholds in Massachusetts for decades, and though they are now made illegal in the bill, no one used utilized them before.

“It’s never been a tactic utilized here,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some think that they’re used in policing as a tactic. It’s absolutely never trained or allowed in Massachusetts. Now it is codified into law though and it is very specific.”

Everett Chief Steve Mazzie, who has voiced several concerns over the last several months, has had family policing the streets of Everett since 1926, and he said over those years policing has become more transparent, professional and accountable. He said it has also become more complex, but most officers already demand excellence from others and support raising the bar. However, the new bill has him worried that more officers will retire, and fewer young people will want to be police officers.

“With the hasty passing of the police reform bill I am concerned that not only will those that supported it not get the desired results that they are looking for, but also I fear that public safety may suffer in the long run,” he said. “We have already begun to see quality seasoned professionals retire and I am concerned that our applicant pool will shrink as those previously interested in policing will turn to other professions that are not only less dangerous, but also ones in which they feel supported as well as not second-guessed on everything they do.”

Like many, Mazzie said he worries that if the POST members aren’t there for the right reasons, it could become a bad situation.

“If they are perceived as anti-police, that could be a game changer,” he said.

State Delegation Support

Locally, Chelsea’s state delegation has been united on the bill.

State Sen. Sal DiDomenico did vote in favor of the bill and supports the signed version.

“This legislation is a product of both thorough debate and compromise, and I am confident that the product of this process is a bill that will go a long way towards modernizing law enforcement standards and addressing racial justice reforms,” said Senator DiDomenico. “My office heard from an unprecedented number of constituents on this issue, demanding justice and long-overdue reforms. My team and I listened to each and every person who contacted us about this legislation, and I am grateful to everyone who weighed in and urged the Legislature to deliver a fair and just bill. I want to thank my colleagues in the Senate and House, especially Senators Chang-Diaz and Brownsberger and Representatives Cronin and González on the conference committee, for their meticulous work to produce a bill that brings us one step further along on the path to racial justice and equity.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan also voted for the bill, and supports the final version, but said it was one of the most difficult votes he has ever taken.

“This was the toughest legislation I’ve worked on in my seven years of service as State Representative,” he said. “The atmosphere around the bill was emotionally charged at times; while also deliberating under COVID precautions. I feel confident that we came up with a public safety bill that codifies proven best practices statewide with consistency. The bill also continues the conversation on pieces that need to be further flushed out. I’ve had many conversations with constituents with varying opinions, members of law enforcement as well as colleagues in municipal and state government. These conversations were honest and respectful even if tense at times. In the end, I believe we are all better off for having had this conversation and seized the opportunity to continue to making progress on community and police relationships in the Commonwealth.”

The law did have the support of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO).

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, a key negotiator on the bill, of Springfield, said the new law marks a time for healing between police and minority communities.

“Today begins to address decades of demands to bring reform and accountability to law enforcement institutions,” said González, chair of the Black & Latino Caucus. “Today will go down in history as a necessary step to begin the healing process between the police and the Black and Latino communities.  Building consensus is not always easy, but Massachusetts has always had Patriots ready to take the first steps on national issues. Governor Baker, Senate President Spilka, Speaker DeLeo, the Black and Latino Caucus and the thousands who took to the streets are our modern day Patriots.”

The Nuts and Bolts of the Law

This legislation will, for the first time, create a mandatory certification process for police officers through the POST Commission. The Commission, through a majority civilian board, will certify officers and create processes for decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand in the event of certain misconduct. The nine-member commission will be responsible for investigating and adjudicating claims of misconduct, maintaining databases of training, certification, employment, and internal affairs records for all officers, and certifying law enforcement agencies. By creating a central entity to oversee officer certification, the Commission will ensure that those officers’ training and misconduct records are available both to the Commission and to those officers’ current and future employers, improving accountability.

Governor Baker amended the bill to strengthen its due process protections for law enforcement, added police labor representation on the Commission, and strengthened the bill’s facial recognition provisions ensuring law enforcement agencies can continue to access these potentially lifesaving tools responsibly.

The new law identifies the general circumstances under which police officers can use physical force, and specifically bans the use of chokeholds and prohibits firing into a fleeing vehicle unless doing so is both necessary to prevent imminent harm and proportionate to that risk of harm. The bill also generally precludes officers from using rubber pellets, chemical weapons, or canine units against a crowd.  Violations of any of these provisions may provide grounds for an officer to have their certification suspended or revoked.

The bill places strict limits on the use of so-called “no-knock” warrants, requiring such warrants to be issued by a judge and only in situations where an officer’s safety would be at risk if they announced their presence and only where there are no children or adults over the age of 65 in the home.  The legislation provides for an exception when those children or older adults are themselves at risk of harm. In addition, the bill requires law enforcement to seek a court order when conducting a facial recognition search except in emergency situations.

The legislation includes key provisions of the State Police reform legislation the Administration filed in January that provide new tools to improve accountability and discipline within the Department and to enhance diversity in the Department’s recruitment and promotional practices. Those key provisions include establishing a State Police cadet program, enhancing the Colonel’s ability to address and correct misconduct, updating rules governing promotions of uniformed members to officer positions, removing the requirement that the Governor look exclusively within the State Police when appointing a colonel, and creating a new criminal offense for police officers who knowingly receive payment for a fraudulent claim of hours worked.

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