House passes police reform bill to address systemic racism in law enforcement

JULY 25, 2020

The past two months have been a tumultuous and powerful time as our nation experiences a long-overdue reckoning on issues of racial oppression and police brutality in response to the lynching of George Floyd and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others.

For my part, I've been listening to those most impacted by systemic racism and doing all that I can to be an ally to Black people and People of Color. In addition, I co-sponsored a major proposal by members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative caucus to limit the use of force by police officers, and I've provided testimony in support of efforts to reallocate resources away from local police departments and toward community needs. I've also stood on the front lines of Black Lives Matter demonstrations at the State House and in our community.

These efforts reached a milestone late last night when our police reform bill, H.4860, “An Act relative to justice, equity and accountability in law enforcement,” was engrossed by the House of Representatives on a vote of 93-to-66.

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. When the vote is that 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 and introduces some limits on the doctrine of qualified immunity. It also establishes that a person in custody cannot consent to sexual relations with a law enforcement officer (this has been a particularly outrageous omission in our current laws).

This bill does a lot of good — and yet, it still 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.

I took the lead on efforts to ban the use of tear gas by law enforcement — you can read more about my proposal here in Boston Magazine — and read about the final vote on my amendment, here in the Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, we also took a number of votes to resist proposals by Republicans and conservative Democrats to weaken the bill. What became clear in this messy (and refreshingly transparent) process is that Cambridge and Somerville legislators are on the leading edge in our state — and the majority of our House 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 for many days — 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.

For a summary of the bill text and the many amendments I co-sponsored throughout the process, please see my State House blog.

And for a report on the engrossed House bill, please see this WBUR story via the State House News Service.

In conclusion, no single bill could undo 400 years of racial oppression and white supremacy here 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. Our bill will now likely move to a House-Senate conference committee, and the struggle for racial justice and equity must continue.

If you have any questions or concerns about this effort, please do not hesitate to reach out.