State Police Reform Bill Passes House, Heads to Conference

Rahsaan Hall, director, of the ACLU of Massachusetts Racial Justice Program, addresses reporters on police reform bill. Bay State Banner photo
Rahsaan Hall, director, of the ACLU of Massachusetts Racial Justice Program, addresses reporters on police reform bill. Bay State Banner photo

by State Rep. Mike Connolly

Mike Connolly

The police reform bill, “An Act relative to justice, equity and accountability in law enforcement,” was engrossed by the House on a vote of 93-to-66 late last night. This was the closest vote on major bill in the House in over a decade — after three days of marathon debates, our ability to get to a majority was in question right up until the final hours — and when the vote is this close, you know the victory was hard fought and real.

The first thing this bill does is create a truly independent agency, the Massachusetts Police Standards and Training Commission. This agency will have the power to decertify any police officer for misconduct or for using excessive force. The bill also bans choke holds, places limits on no-knock warrants and various use of force tactics, requires de-escalation tactics, creates a duty to intervene for officers witnessing excessive use of force, and creates a right to bias-free policing. At long last, it also establishes that a person in custody cannot consent to sexual relations with a law enforcement officer.

This bill does a lot of good — and yet, it leaves a lot to be desired. To be sure, it is not the bill that we would produce if our state legislature was made up entirely of delegates from the cities of Cambridge and Somerville. There were many things that I personally fought for with my progressive colleagues this week, such as stronger limits on the doctrine of qualified immunity, a ban on the use of tear gas, and restrictions on the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement. Unfortunately, all of these items failed on lopsided roll call votes. Meanwhile, we also took a number of votes to resist proposals to weaken the bill. What became clear in this messy and refreshingly transparent process is that Cambridge and Somerville Reps. are on the leading edge in our state — and the majority of our colleagues were not with us on progressive proposals such as these.

That said, this bill represents meaningful reform, and the police officers’ unions fought it tooth and nail with various threats and piles of misinformation. We’ve been working virtually around the clock on this bill — so as the dust now settles, I simply want to say thank you to The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus for their leadership, and thank you to the Speaker and the Chairs of Judiciary and Ways and Means for their steadfast commitment to responding to the murder of George Floyd with this bill.

No single bill could undo 400 years of racial oppression and white supremacy in Massachusetts. But with that truth in mind, we can be proud that we did everything possible this week to begin to address the systemic racism that is inherent to policing and law enforcement in our Commonwealth. The bill will now likely move to a House-Senate conference committee, and the struggle for racial justice and equity must continue.