Rancor delays action on Senate police reform bill; debate to resume Mon.

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A police reform bill in the Massachusetts Senate has been delayed a third time, with debate now scheduled for Monday.

The holdup is believed to be over Republicans' and some Democrats' concerns over the bill's limitation of "qualified immunity." Qualified immunity protects officers from legal consequences for actions that don't violate "clearly established" law, yet the bill's supporters say its current practice prevents accountability and justice for victims.

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, on Saturday suggested there was agreement on 80 to 90 percent of the bill, but that more discussion was needed on the qualified immunity language. President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, said in response that the qualified immunity section had a September hearing and was reported favorably by the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Webster, who motioned to delay the debate Thursday, Friday and Saturday, had said Thursday that it didn’t have a public hearing for stakeholders to provide input and that there was insufficient time for senators to review the bill.

Yet proponents say the omnibus bill is a compilation of individual bills that almost all have had hearings, and delaying the debate risks missing a political moment ripe for change, they warn. Formal sessions are scheduled to end July 31.

“This is how we fail to do racial justice in America in the 21st century. ... If this bill does not get done by the end of this month, I question whether we will come back to it,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, on the Senate floor Friday.

Chang-Diaz’s remarks came after a Democrat, state Sen. John Keenan, of Quincy, said he supported Fattman’s motion because he believed the bill “needs a little more work.” Keenan later noted his family history in law enforcement and cited a perception among law enforcement that “they are under attack.”

“Despite our best intentions and despite the work done on this, we find ourselves not bringing people together but moving them further apart,” he said.

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Chang-Diaz rejected Keenan’s claim that the bill did not bring people together.

“We met with stakeholder groups from law enforcement and wove their input into the bill,” she said. “Does it have everything they want? Of course not. Does it have everything the people from Roxbury want? Of course not.”

Rahsaan Hall, the director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ racial justice program, believes the holdup is not over the bill’s process.

“It absolutely is a delay tactic,” he told the Eagle. “My concern is that by tabling the discussion, police are organizing efforts to stop this bill from moving forward because they are opposed to greater accountability.”

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The Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, among other groups, asked its supporters to write to their legislators opposing the bill.

In a line that since has been redacted from a July 8 Facebook post, the group wrote, “If you think 7 civilians killed in 7 days in Boston is bad, just wait for the purge that will come.”

“The fact that they are using these types of fear tactics to move legislators is highly disturbing, especially when you think about what qualified immunity allows police officers to get away with,” Hall said. “It reveals that police aren’t really interested in public safety but rather in being able to continue to police communities the way that they do.”

Law enforcement groups have expressed concern over the bill’s limitation of qualified immunity and use of force.

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But, groups advocating against police violence say the bill does not go far enough, noting it does not ban tear gas — it's a chemical weapon banned in war — or no-knock warrants. 

An amendment from state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, would ban no-knock warrants, and it is endorsed by the ACLU.

Hinds told the Eagle on Thursday that he had seen support for police reform from local officers and chiefs. Hinds said he shared concerns over “mission creep” with Pittsfield Police Department Chief Mike Wynn. The department did not respond to a request for comment sent Thursday morning.

On Friday, Hinds expressed support for Chang-Diaz on Twitter.

Describing Massachusetts law enforcement as superior, Fattman argued Thursday that “the egregious sins of other law enforcement in other parts of our country should not be their burden to bear.”

Hall said that while police might, in some cases, contribute to public safety, they endanger public safety in black communities and other communities of color if permitted to use violent tactics.

“There are certainly ample accounts of people who have been helped by police, but that does not speak to the overwhelming number of people who have been harmed by police, who have had their lives ruined, disrupted and destroyed by police,” Hall said.

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


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