Baker Signs Police Reform Legislation; Identifies the Circumstances Police Officers Can Use Physical Force

Gov. Charles Baker signed “An Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” a controversial piece of legislation that creates a mandatory certification process for police officers, increases accountability and transparency in law enforcement and gives police departments a greater ability to hire or promote only qualified applicants.    

“This bill is the product of bipartisan cooperation and thanks to the Black and Latino Caucus’ leadership on the hugely important issue of law enforcement accountability, Massachusetts will have one of the best laws in the nation,” said Baker. “Police officers have enormously difficult jobs and we are grateful they put their lives on the line every time they go to work. Thanks to final negotiations on this bill, police officers will have a system they can trust and our communities will be safer for it.”

Former Speaker Bob DeLeo added, “I am proud that the House lived up to its vow of listening to folks with lived experience in enacting one of the most comprehensive approaches to police reform in the United States since the tragic murder of George Floyd. My unyielding gratitude to Speaker Mariano and Chairs Cronin, Michlewitz and González for their persistent effort to improve our law enforcement system. I am confident that the House of Representatives will build on this achievement in the time ahead and am humbled that legislation which promotes fairness and equality are part of the House’s legacy.”

“I am grateful to the Governor and key leaders in the House and Senate for their wisdom in coming together to carry this bill across the finish line,” said Sen. William N. Brownsberger (D – Belmont). “I believe that within five years, the Commonwealth will be a significantly better place as a result of this legislation.” 

“This law represents a mile-marker, not an end,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz (D – Boston). “Among the 50 states, it will create the first civilian-led police oversight board with subpoena power and decertification authority; it will ban chokeholds and limit no-knock warrants; it will create a duty-to-intervene for police officers and a duty to de-escalate; it will ban racial profiling and put enforcement powers behind that ban; it will end the requirement of police officers in schools. But no one bill will dismantle structural racism—in policing, or in all the other places it exists. As much as we celebrate these hard-won steps forward today, we must equally resolve to keep walking the road of racial justice in 2021.” 

“The members of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association are eager to turn the page on what has been an unprecedented and incredibly difficult and enduring year on so many different levels,” said Chief Edward A. Dunne, President of the Massachusetts Chief of Police Association. “We are extremely confident that this comprehensive legislation signed into law by the Governor today will serve to renew an elevated sense of faith, confidence, and trust that the residents of the Commonwealth will have in their law enforcement agencies across the state. The MCOPA fully realizes and wholeheartedly agrees that the general public deserves nothing less than the highest level of professionalism, accountability and transparency in their respective police departments and this legislation will assist in enhancing our long-standing position as what are viewed by many national experts as model police departments across the entire country.”

This legislation will, for the first time, create a mandatory certification process for police officers through the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST). The Commission, through a majority civilian board, will certify officers and create processes for decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand in the event of certain misconduct. The nine-member commission will include six individuals from outside of law enforcement, and will also be responsible for investigating and adjudicating claims of misconduct, maintaining databases of training, certification, employment, and internal affairs records for all officers, and certifying law enforcement agencies. By creating a central entity to oversee officer certification, the Commission will ensure that those officers’ training and misconduct records are available both to the Commission and to those officers’ current and future employers, improving accountability.

Gov. Baker amended the bill to strengthen its due process protections for law enforcement, added police labor representation on the commission, and strengthened the bill’s facial recognition provisions ensuring law enforcement agencies can continue to access these potentially lifesaving tools responsibly.

The new law identifies the general circumstances under which police officers can use physical force, and specifically bans the use of chokeholds and prohibits firing into a fleeing vehicle unless doing so is both necessary to prevent imminent harm and proportionate to that risk of harm.  The bill also generally precludes officers from using rubber pellets, chemical weapons, or canine units against a crowd.  Violations of any of these provisions may provide grounds for an officer to have their certification suspended or revoked.

The bill places strict limits on the use of so-called “no-knock” warrants, requiring such warrants to be issued by a judge and only in situations where an officer’s safety would be at risk if they announced their presence and only where there are no children or adults over the age of 65 in the home.  The legislation provides for an exception when those children or older adults are themselves at risk of harm.  In addition, the bill requires law enforcement to seek a court order when conducting a facial recognition search except in emergency situations.

The legislation includes key provisions of the State Police reform legislation the Administration filed in January that provide new tools to improve accountability and discipline within the Department and to enhance diversity in the Department’s recruitment and promotional practices.  Those key provisions include establishing a State Police cadet program, enhancing the Colonel’s ability to address and correct misconduct, updating rules governing promotions of uniformed members to officer positions, removing the requirement that the Governor look exclusively within the State Police when appointing a colonel, and creating a new criminal offense for police officers who knowingly receive payment for a fraudulent claim of hours worked.

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