Massachusetts Senate's testy debate on police vests extends to social media
BOSTON >> Recriminations boiled up in the Senate late Thursday night after lawmakers rejected a $300,000 earmark for bulletproof vests to protect police officers, and then quickly changed their minds.
Early Thursday evening, the Senate voted 17-20 to reject a Republican-sponsored amendment after Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka said bulletproof vests were already funded through a different source.
Then, in the final hour before passing a $39.5 billion budget bill, the Senate reversed itself and voted 37-1 in favor of funding the vests.
Safety for law enforcement was already at the top of many minds around the state after Auburn police officer Ronald Tarentino was shot to death during a traffic stop early Sunday morning.
The confluence of the tragic death and the policy consideration had resonance for Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Webster Republican, who like his colleagues spent much of the week tweeting about Senate budget deliberations at the urging of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.
"While a wake was going on for Officer Tarantino..." Fattman wrote on Twitter, responding to a tweet about the rejected funding.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, responded to Fattman's tweet, writing, "This is how right-wing Republicans operate — @RyanFattman politicizes tragedy, @MassFiscal publicizes it." Eldridge also wrote of Fattman's tweet, "This is tweet that Senators have seen that's upset so many, disappointing to politicize a tragedy."
All 20 senators who originally opposed the measure are Democrats. MassFiscal is a conservative non-profit seen by Democrats as a stalking horse for Republicans, and its executive director, Paul Craney, highlighted the issue on Twitter and in communication to the News Service.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, told the News Service he had not politicized the amendment. The proposal was filed by last Thursday's deadline — prior to Tarentino's tragic death — and Tarr called it an "earnest attempt" to support the existing program providing funding for vests.
"The question is can we continue to maintain a sizable enough amount of funding to keep up with the program in the future?" Tarr said. "But I think it would be seriously misleading to say that there are police officers now that don't have access to this fund."
Tarr, who requested a recorded vote on his amendment, spoke about the vigilance and bravery of police, who he said deserve the support of lawmakers through the $39.5 billion fiscal 2017 budget.
"This amendment is to supplement their efforts and to support those efforts," Tarr said on the floor. "So that we as a Senate tonight, as we think about spending nearly $40 billion of taxpayer money, can say that there is a place for the people who at this hour and this night are on our streets, are in police cruisers, are in police stations, ready to protect us from whatever threat arises."
Though Spilka said she believed funding was in place for the public safety equipment, the Senate overwhelmingly backed the measure when it resurfaced Thursday night in a redrafted Tarr amendment earmarking the same amount for the same purpose they had earlier rejected.
"We have a capital account that has funds that [the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security] asked for, and it's in there and they provide bulletproof vests," Spilka told the News Service after the vote. She said, "As far as I know there is sufficient funding in that account."
Democrats took turns defending their votes, and cited their own history and family history with public safety in rejecting any notion they do not place high value on the safety of law enforcement.
"I didn't hear from my police departments that they needed vests," said Arlington Democrat Sen. Ken Donnelly, a former Lexington fire lieutenant. Walpole Democrat Sen. James Timilty, co-chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, said, "I didn't hear from anyone in public safety and I'm with them all the time."
When asked if there are deficiencies in bullet-proof vest access, Mark Leahy, the former Northborough police chief and incoming executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association told the News Service via email on Friday, "I know of no deficiencies in the program, which has been very reliable. In Northborough we've never had any problems."
Sen. Michael Moore, a Millbury Democrat who represents Auburn and voted for the vest appropriation both times, said that while Tarentino had been wearing a vest the Legislature can still do much more to assist law enforcement. According to MassLive.com, Tarentino was struck fatally by a round that went between his gun belt and his bulletproof vest, while another bullet was stopped by the vest.
Senators made it clear that the debate had touched a nerve.
"It's the culture of the Senate that I'm proud to be a part of that we don't spot our colleagues for political gain — short-term shallow victories when people's lives are literally on the line," said Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat who voted in favor of the vest funding both times.
O'Connor Ives said, "To try to sabotage people on an amendment and act like they don't care about the people that put their lives on the line every day is not only disappointing — I think that it's a discredit to the culture of the body, and I hope that it doesn't continue in the future."
Senate President Stan Rosenberg told the News Service that soon after the amendment was voted down leadership began planning to revisit it, and he said the decision to return to the issue was not prompted by criticism online.
"Under Rosenberg's leadership, the senate takes roll call votes to reject funding that would protect our state's law enforcement but only after it bans plastic bags," Craney, MassFiscal's executive director, said in a statement. "Rosenberg leaves virtually everyone wondering what his long term vision is for the state."
Rosenberg led off budget deliberations by encouraging senators and the public to tweet about the process using the hashtag #SenBudget, which Eldridge affixed to his tweet critiquing MassFiscal and Fattman.
"Sometimes we have to do things twice to get it right. The first version didn't work. The second version was perfected and it can work," Rosenberg told the News Service after the vote.
Asked if his encouragement for social media activism includes those critical of the earlier bulletproof vest vote, Rosenberg said, "Everybody is free in social media to say and do what they choose."
Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, accused her colleagues of sensationalizing Tarentino's death.
"In an attempt to sensationalize the death of a hard-working police officer and hero, a vote was forced on a faulty amendment with no credible money attached to it and an effort was made to paint many of us as anti-law enforcement," Forry said in a statement on Friday. "While some Senate Republicans were busy playing politics on social media, my colleagues and I were working to correct the language in the bill and ensure that money is available for communities to purchase bullet-proof vests."
Spilka said the original amendment created a new line item, and the amendment that ultimately passed included the funding as an earmark under an existing Public Safety and Security line item, which is for matching funds under a federal grant.
Tarr said there are matching federal funds for bulletproof vests.
Sen. Dan Wolf, a Cape Cod Democrat not seeking re-election, was the only member to vote against the funding measure on both votes.
"I'm willing to switch my vote. I think I'd like to hear some data from somebody in the room who could tell us who is not currently protected and will be protected by us taking this vote," Wolf said. He said, "It was my understanding that we already were providing that level and opportunity for every police department in the Commonwealth to provide vests for their officers."
No senator publicly provided Wolf the data he requested.
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