House policing bill aims to bridge a wide gulf

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The House is moving forward with debate over 217 amendments to a police reform bill that faces charges from some who say it doesn't do enough for racial justice and others who say it had too little law enforcement input.

Proponents say more time and testimony have made the House bill an improvement over a Senate bill criticized for moving too quickly. The bill seeks to strengthen use-of-force restrictions and start a system for officer training, certification and decertification, but the House version doesn't go as far as the Senate's in limiting the controversial practice of "qualified immunity."

"The House had the benefit of more time, and that was really helpful to take the time to be able to get input from the various stakeholders," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "There are people on both sides, those who think it's too hard on law enforcement and those who don't think it's strict enough or tough enough on law enforcement who are unhappy. The debate over the next couple days will be an opportunity to hear those viewpoints, and it'll be interesting to see."

By press time Wednesday, the House had voted 83-76 to pass an amendment banning no-knock warrants except if issued by a judge, proposed by state Rep. Liz Miranda, D-Boston. A no-knock warrant was used in the police raid leading to the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.

Debate is set to continue Thursday.

Chief critics

In a Tuesday news conference, law enforcement leaders criticized the House and Senate versions of the bill as "nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to the events happening hundreds of miles away from here."

"These bills are being used to make a political statement," said Hampden Police Chief Jeff Farnsworth, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "They do not address issues in Massachusetts."

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, responded to those critiques in a speech on the House floor Wednesday.

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"We may not get everything we want in negotiations or from government, but government must obey the will of the people," Gonzalez said. "The bill when read, it begins to answer the prayers and the cries [of] the millions that took to the street to protest."

The legislation lacks "all the ingredients to address all the social ills for 300 years that have inflicted pain in communities of color, but it does move us in the right direction" toward a "common goal," Gonzalez said of holding police accountable.

Western Massachusetts police unions said Monday they support reform but criticized the process as rushed and lacking law enforcement input.

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Black church leaders Monday characterized police reform as overdue and necessary to address the overpolicing of communities of color, citing a federal report that identified "systemic deficiencies in policies" as responsible for "a pattern or practice of using excessive use of force" in the Springfield Police Department's Narcotics Bureau. They argued that the House bill weakened accountability measures proposed by the Senate.

Other critics have expressed concern that both bills' training measures would fail to curb police misconduct and would require additional funding that they believe should instead be invested in resources for communities of color, a position taken by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School and Families for Justice as Healing.

'Time is our enemy'

Among the House amendments is one that would provide driver's licenses to those without proof of legal status in Massachusetts.

"We have Massachusetts policies that lead to negative interactions between police and immigrants," Farley-Bouvier said. "These policies can be changed, and one of those policies is that around driver's licenses."

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It's a public safety issue for people to drive without a license if they get into an accident or are stopped by police, Farley-Bouvier said. Many undocumented people are "essential workers," and particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, the unavailability of driver's licenses limits those immigrants' choices, such as taking public transportation or driving without a license, she said.

She cited statistics showing the number of hit-and-run accidents decrease in states that enacted similar measures.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said there were "dramatic differences" between the House and Senate versions, while state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said there was more similarity between the bills than he had expected.

If the House passes the bill, a conference committee would reconcile the House and Senate versions.

The big priority is getting the bill to the governor by the end of the legislative session, which is set to expire Monday.

"It would be a shame if the Senate spent so much time on its bill, and we spent so much time on ours, if we don't get this done," Pignatelli said.

"Time is our enemy in this," Farley-Bouvier said. "And it is completely unnecessary for it to be our enemy, because all we need to do is extend [the] session past July 31, and we take that factor out of it, and that's what should happen. We should not be forced into this decision so quickly."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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