More Work Is Needed, But Foundation For Police Professionalism Has Been Laid

The Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Association For Professional Law Enforcement (MAPLE), voted unanimously last evening to support a police reform bill passed yesterday by both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature. The bill moves to the Governor for his signature.  A copy of the press release expressing that support is attached.           

The bill creates a “Peace Officer Standards And Training Commission” which has statewide authority to ensure the uniformity and quality of police training, to investigate incidents of police misconduct, and to take action to decertify officers found culpable of such misconduct.   In a press release issued by the Board today, the legislation was described as a “foundation for the construction of truly professional police service in Massachusetts.”          

MAPLE has been lobbying in support of a statewide standards and training authority in Massachusetts for the past three years, however the effort has languished on Beacon Hill.  Interest and movement on the bill significantly increased following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of this year.   Governor Baker and State Representative Russell Holmes revived interest in this legislation in early June, when the Governor filed his version of a police reform bill.  This was quickly followed by bills in both the Senate and the House.  A MAPLE special committee was formed in early June to develop recommendations and to monitor legislative developments.

A legislative conference committee was convened on Beacon Hill in mid-July to reconcile the three versions of the bill.  MAPLE’s special committee, crafted a comprehensive set of recommendations for this pending legislation.  The Board of Directors approved these recommendations and they were forwarded to the conference committee for their consideration.

One of MAPLE’s central concerns was the membership composition on the overarching Peace Officer’s Standards and Training Commission.  MAPLE expressed concerns over what appeared to be an open ended appointment process in many of the legislative drafts, raising concerns about blatant political manipulation.  We strongly recommended a mix of police, judicial/legal and social service presence on the commission, coupled with a strong emphasis on “competence” in police matters, as a consideration in the appointment of all commission members.  The conference committee version of the bill, reflected many of these recommendations.   It mandated that a police chief, a police officer under the rank of sergeant and a minority police officer sit on the commission. Also recommended was the inclusion of a Superior Court Judge and an attorney.   A strong statement requiring that all appointees have experience with police practices and procedures was also included in the new bill.

The police reform legislation that passed yesterday allows for the decertification of officers found responsible for designated offenses, involving acts of brutality, untruthfulness, criminal conduct and unethical behavior, but it also mandates a hearing before any action can be imposed.  A significant feature of the conference committee’s recommendation was the establishment of  “clear and convincing” evidence as the standard necessary to support the decertification of a police officer.  The standard in all previous drafts had been “preponderance of the evidence” a much lesser standard of proof.  The inclusion of the heightened standard reflected a very explicit recommendation made by MAPLE.

Finally, MAPLE’s recommendation not to change “qualified immunity”  was also reflected in the conference committee bill, while the law does allows the Attorney General to prosecute a claimant’s case for damages and establishes a prima facia standard for losing immunity, if  an officer has been “decertified” by the act that gave rise to the injury claim, an officer’s current legal protection under “qualified immunity” remains untouched.

The bill establishes the Division of Police Training and Certification which reports to the commission.  The governing element within the Division is the Training and Standards Committee.  This committee is heavily comprised of law enforcement professionals, who will be charged with promulgating rules and regulations governing police training and operations.  In essence, this will become policing’s professional board in Massachusetts, responsible for researching, identifying and applying the industry’s best practices across a wide area of responsibilities. The Committee will set the standards for critical police functions: such as, criminal and internal affairs investigations, evidence preservation and prisoner detention procedures.

Other significant changes include: making basic police training part of the screening process for recruits.  The old practice of sending recruits to basic training after their appointment as officers has been discontinued.  Appointment will now be contingent upon the successful completion of basic training.  The state’s numerous and often diverse police training academies will come under the commission’s authority, and will be subject to their certification. The bill also includes very strong penalties for officer’s found guilty of sexually abusing people in their care and custody; such as, the elderly, the mentally challenged and juveniles.  The use of nondisclosure agreements as part of disciplinary settlement has been terminated.  The Massachusetts State Police will also fall under the oversight of this commission.

While this bill represents a monumental achievement, there remain areas that will require follow-up.  Efforts must continue to suppress political influences and promote professionalism within the Commission and its staff.  A prohibition on hiring individuals with police experience within the Commission’s administrative staff needs to be reconsidered.  The legislation fails to address the pressing need for police higher education.  The police reform bill creates a very complex set of duties and responsibilities for police managers and supervisors, which will require a degree of academic preparation and training in order to successfully meet.  Finally, the legislature will have to make a commitment to fund these reforms or this historic accomplishment risks being reduced to a punitive façade.

The “Peace Officer Standards and Training” reform bill does not simply establish a central authority to govern the state’s police service but it also assigns the responsibility for improving policing to one state authority.  This has never occurred before in Massachusetts.  Those who are interested in police reform now have a door to which they can beat a path.  The matter of policing and how it is conducted in Massachusetts has come out of the shadows.  A lamp has been lit which coupled with a strong commitment from all those who care about policing and justice, offers a great opportunity to make policing more understandable and accessible to the public it is intended to serve and without whose support it cannot succeed. 


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