The Berkshire Eagle
In its police reform bill, the Massachusetts Legislature sought to address civilians’ calls for police accountability while ensuring that law enforcement kept a seat at the table.
This approach, lawmakers believe, allowed them to “strike a balance” between protecting civilians and providing law enforcement with the tools to perform its duties. Many reform-minded activists have praised the bill as a first step toward change, while prominent police unions called it a bridge too far.
One Berkshire County police chief, however, told The Eagle his department is “in good shape with … many of the issues proposed in this bill,” having already begun an effort to build trust by increasing transparency.
“We’ve given our officers tons of training that is discussed in the bill,” said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh, adding that the department’s use of force policy includes many of the items in the bill. “We’ve always backed decertifying people that shouldn’t be in police work.”
The leader of the county’s chapter of the NAACP called the certification system at the center of the bill “a significant step” for accountability.
“I think the package presents a beginning to some type of reform which we didn’t have,” said Berkshire NAACP President Dennis Powell. “We can say it’s really too late, but then we also say better late than never.”
The makeup of the commission responsible for certifying and decertifying officers changed across various proposals, demonstrating the kind of balancing act the Legislature performed. Lawmakers settled on a nine-person body with six civilians and three law enforcement members.
“I do believe that it’s right,” state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said of the composition. “I think it’s important to have a variety of viewpoints on the commission, including law enforcement, but I’m glad it’s majority civilians.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said the input lawmakers received from police gave them “much to agree with,” although they also wanted to recognize “that people experience the law enforcement system differently” based on their race.
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said “compromise was achieved” in the bill, although it wasn’t “everything I wanted.”
Gov. Charlie Baker can sign, veto or return the bill with amendments next week.
After the House and Senate passed the bill Tuesday, many in law enforcement aired concerns.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey expressed concerns with the bill’s limitation of no-knock warrants and its moratorium on facial recognition technology.
The leader of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police criticized the “minimal representation from those experienced in law enforcement” on the certification commission. The union also took aim at the bill’s process, saying it had “zero time” to process the bill before the Legislature voted.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, cited the quick turnaround as the reason he voted against the bill after voting for the version the House passed in July.
He said he would have wanted an additional day before voting, and that his vote would then have been determined by his review of the legislation and constituents’ feedback in that time.
Pignatelli, who said he heard concerns about the bill from emergency medical technicians and firefighters as well as law enforcement, said he needed more time to speak with constituents to be comfortable with the bill’s possible implications.
“If I’m going to take a vote yes or no on this issue, I’m going to have to be able to explain it to my constituents and people who question it,” he said. “I have no problem voting against something I’m not comfortable with. … I predict it’s going to come back to us from the governor, which tells us it’s not a perfect bill to begin with.”
Powell expressed disappointment that the Senate’s proposal to limit qualified immunity, which shields officers from legal consequences for actions done on the job, was not adopted in the final bill.
“The unions really fought very hard against it, and it’s somewhat unfortunate because [that reform] does have the greatest accountability,” he said. “I think people are going to continue to fight, but I think everyone is really pleased with what they were able to get, because it is a step forward.”