In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, the Mass. Senate has voted in favor of sweeping police reform legislation. In an effort to advance social and racial justice, the bill creates new forms of oversight, promotes community policing, and strengthens standards of the use of force, among other measures.
One major component in the bill — sponsored by local State Senator Mike Barrett — provides new transparency and oversight to the purchase of military weapons by local, county, and state law enforcement.
After Ferguson, Barrett says, Americans learned that local law enforcement agencies routinely take advantage of massive federal sales and donations of equipment and gear that would otherwise be too expensive for municipal budgets. Deployment of this material occurs disproportionately in communities of color.
“For Massachusetts, the issue is not academic,” Barrett said. “Many cities, towns, and regional organizations are heavy users of these federal programs.”
Barrett’s measure is designed to increase state and local accountability for the acquisition of “military-grade controlled property,” like assault rifles and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.
Among other provisions, the bill requires local police to get approval from its town meeting or city council before acquiring military-grade property, ensuring that all such purchases are subject to a public hearing. Additionally, it requires approval by the state’s Secretary of Public Safety and Security for transfers of military-grade property from a federal agency to the state police or sheriffs. And, after adoption of an amendment filed by Sen. Barrett, such approvals would also first be subject to a public hearing.
Other provisions of the bill include:
- Strengthen the use of force standards: The bill bans chokeholds and other deadly uses of force except in cases of imminent harm. It requires the use of de-escalation tactics when feasible; creates a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force; limits qualified immunity defense for officers whose conduct violates the law; and expands and strengthens police training in de-escalation, racism, and intervention tactics.
- Clarifies and rebalances the understanding of a qualified immunity defense: Under the legislation, the concept of qualified immunity will remain, as long as a public official, including law enforcement, is acting in accordance with the law. However, this bill will not impact or limit existing indemnification protections for public officials.
- Creates a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC): The committee will be an independent state entity composed of law enforcement professionals, community members, and racial justice advocates. The committee is tasked with standardizing certification, training, and decertification of police officers. The POSAC will maintain a disclosure database of all misconduct complaints, and investigate complaints involving serious misconduct. It will also prohibit nondisclosure agreements in police misconduct settlements and establish a commission to recommend a correctional officer certification, training, and decertification framework.
- Imposes a moratorium on the use of facial surveillance technology: Government entities will not be able to use this technology while a commission studies its use and creates a task force to study the use of body and dashboard cameras by law enforcement agencies.
- Addresses “school-to-prison pipeline:” The presence of a school resource officer will be at the discretion of the superintendent. The provision also prevents school districts from sharing students’ personal information with police except for investigation of a crime or to stop imminent harm. The bill also expands access to record expungement for young people by allowing individuals with more than one charge on their juvenile record to qualify for expungement.
- Establishes the Strong Communities and Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to shift funding from policing and corrections towards community investment. Controlled by community members and community development professionals, the fund will make competitive grants to drive economic opportunities in communities most impacted by excessive policing and mass incarceration.
- Begin dismantling systemic racism: The legislation bans racial profiling, and requires racial data collection for all police stops. It also introduces a police training requirement on the history of slavery, lynching and racism, and creates a permanent African American Commission. A primary purpose of the commission will be to advise the legislature and executive agencies on policies and practices that will ensure equity for, and address the impact of, discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
- Establish the Latinx Commission: Based on the existing Asian-American Commission and the African American Commission created in the current bill, to bring more underrepresented voices to the table and advance equity in policymaking. Another prohibits decertified law enforcement officers from becoming corrections officers, while a further amendment eliminates statutory language offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.
- Creates a Commission on Structural Racism: The commission is tasked with mapping out the systems impacting the Department of Corrections (DOC) mission using a structural racism lens. This commission will propose programming and policy shifts and identifying legislative or agency barriers to promoting the optimal operation of the DOC. It also creates a roadmap for the legislature to establish a permanent publicly-funded entity to continue this work.
The Senate’s Reform, Shift + Build Act now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.