(TNS) — The police reform bill started out simply enough: A bicameral effort to limit the use of force by police officers, limit or eliminate no-knock warrants and to make policing more equitable
It wound up an overarching bill encompassing training, use of force, oversight and much more. It's ultimate aim, according to key negotiator Sen. Cynthia Creem, D- Newton, is to address ingrained, systemic racial bias.
"Institutional racism has been around forever," she said. "It's so ingrained for so many people, it's almost subconscious."
As a lead negotiator on Beacon Hill, Watertown Sen. William Brownsberger played an integral role in securing passage of the law in late December 2020. Speaking by phone, he said once a level of consensus formed around the core components of the police reform effort, he made it his "mission above all else to carry those across the finish line."
That sprint to the finish included a final stage of negotiations initiated after Gov. Charlie Baker returned a version of the bill to lawmakers Dec. 10. With the threat of a veto, Baker sought to compromise on specific sections of the bill's text, asking restrictions on the use of facial recognition technology be loosened and requesting some control of police training oversight be retained in the state's executive branch.
On Dec. 31, 2020, Baker signed the reform overhaul into law after Senate and House members approved a final amended version
Brownsberger said he was "extremely happy" with the compromises made to secure passage of the final version of the bill "because I view the compromises that we made as absolutely necessary to getting the bill done — and I am very happy to get the bill done."
"The core of this bill is such a big deal, that I don't regret anything in the way of compromises that we had to make," he added. "Certainly there are things that I might have done differently, but that's just not what I am thinking about."
Creem, who first filed a bill aimed at limiting the use of force, choke holds and no-knock warrants among other issues, is happy to see the bill in its final form.
"It's different than where we started out, but it's a great bill," Creem said.
Creem went on to call the bill a sweeping change to policing in Massachusetts. The best part to her — it does not close the door on further changes, particularly to facial recognition technology.
Central to the 129-page bill is the Police Officers Standards and Training, POST, commission, which Brownsberger said will hold "enormous powers to oversee policing in Massachusetts."
After being appointed by the state's attorney general and governor, members of the POST commission will set about setting procedural rules and regulations. The state senator said he was hopeful most of that work would be completed by the end of 2021 and estimated the public would really begin to see tangible effects of the law in about five years.
Brownsberger said the law passed at the end of last year will help bring much-needed structure to policing in Massachusetts that he said is currently "uneven".
"You have some great departments, you have some totally heroic officers; at the same time you have some departments that are weakly managed; and some problem officers [who] they tend to be concentrated in the more weakly managed departments, where discipline is weak," Brownsberger said.
"I think we have the opportunity to bring all of Massachusetts to the same high level, and the result of that I think will be greater credibility for policing."
Before the bill passed, Massachusetts was one of just four states in the U.S. without a POST system.
In and of itself, a POST system is not necessarily a panacea, said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
"It's only as strong as the provisions within it and the independence of the commission," Hall said. "And by all accounts, this is probably one of the strongest POST commissions in the country."
Duty To De-Escalate
The new law creates a so-called "duty to de-escalate," requiring that officers responding to crises take steps to calm the situation.
"De-escalation by police officers is all about slowing things down," said Annabel Lane, a Brookline Police Department social worker who serves on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts. "The goal is to provide the individual in crisis with time and space, as much as possible while ensuring scene safety, so that you can build rapport."
In her day job, Lane coordinates regional trainings on mental health and substance use response for police officers throughout Norfolk County.
"An underlying component that is key is the ability to recognize when an individual is experiencing mental health symptoms rather than engaging in purposefully dangerous or criminal behavior; these are skills that police undergo extensive training to develop," she said in an email.
Despite this training, police interactions with individuals who have mental illness can sometimes turn deadly.
In Brookline last year, Boston Police officers and a Massachusetts State Trooper shot and killed a man following a confrontation outside Brigham and Women's Hospital and a subsequent car chase. The man's family said he had bipolar and schizoaffective disorders.
Lane said she's unsure what impact the new police reform law will have on police interactions with individuals who have mental illness.
"In my experience, the challenge in Massachusetts has more to do with a lack of accessible, ongoing mental health supports than a failure of police departments," she said. "I see officers trying to manage incredibly complex situations and triage people and connect them to needed supports as best they can — yet these supports are just not available enough."
Does the Police Reform Law Go Far Enough?
The new law is "an important step in the foundation of changing the way policing happens, especially in communities of color," the ACLU's Hall said. "There were some significant components to this bill that have the potential to really rein in racially disparate and aggressive policing."
Among these promising components, he said, are the chokehold ban, limits on crowd-control tactics and no-knock warrants, and the creation of a duty to intervene when an officer sees a colleague using excessive physical force.
But, he added, "There are also some pieces that were important that were left out."
An earlier version of the bill included modest reforms of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers from civil liability — and those didn't make the final cut of the bill. He pointed to the law's lack of substantial regulation on facial and biometric surveillance technologies.
Hall also shared his vision for successful police reform.
"To me, it looks like fewer police on the streets. To me, it looks like fewer people complaining of racial profiling," he said. "It means the elimination of disparities in motor vehicle stops. It means the end of the hypersurveillance of our communities. It means the end of wrongful convictions that begin with overaggressive and substandard policing that is racially biased."
(c)2021 Wicked Local Metro, Needham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.