Why I Support the Reform, Shift + Build Act

I was proud to vote YES on the Senate’s Reform, Shift + Build Act, Senate Bill 2800 on July 14th. The final text of the bill passed by the Senate is here.

The Reform, Shift and Build Act makes meaningful changes to police practices and will advance a number of key racial justice priorities.

Overview of the Bill

This bill puts limits on qualified immunity, bans the use of chokeholds, significantly restricts the use of no knock warrants, tear gas, rubber bullets, and firing into vehicles. The bill also creates a certification system for police officers in Massachusetts and creates a duty for police officers to intervene if another officer is using excessive force. The bill also bans facial recognition technology, cracks down on use of military equipment by police, and more.

This comprehensive police reform and racial justice bill meets the moment and level of policy change that this moment in history and the Black Lives Matter movement demands.

The Right Approach to Qualified Immunity and Civil Rights

Qualified immunity is an important defense that shields police officers (and all public employees) from personal liability in civil lawsuits unless they violate ‘clearly established’ legal principles. Qualified immunity doesn’t just apply to police officers, it applies to all public employees — including me and the people who work in my office. The doctrine of qualified immunity arose out of a desire to protect government officials, but today, the breadth of the doctrine protects public employees violating someone’s civil rights unless there is an identical past situation in which a public official was held accountable. In practice, that makes it very hard to convict cases of misconduct because the most egregious cases (like that of the death of George Floyd) are unprecedented; there are no identical past situations.

Qualified immunity is not codified in Massachusetts law; it’s a legal doctrine set by the federal courts. Police officers are entitled to protections in the same manner that the public is entitled to protections against excessive policing. The Reform, Shift + Build Act aims to move the needle back to a common sense approach where officers are protected under qualified immunity unless they clearly violate civil or Constitutional rights. The bill ensures qualified immunity cannot be used to defend civil rights violations that we all know are so wrong.

Even officers found guilty of misconduct in civil suits won't lose their homes or personal assets. Critically, the Senate's proposal would hold the city, town, or state (in case of State Police) they work for financially responsible. Police officers will remain indemnified, meaning they have protection of their personal finances and assets – such as their homes, in the same exact manner as they are now. That won’t change. A 2014 study surveying police indemnification nationwide from 2006 to 2011 found that during the study period, governments indemnified 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.

Deliberative and Inclusive Process to Reform

Qualified immunity legislation was filed on Beacon Hill in January 2019 by Representative Mike Day. The bill (H3277) had a hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in September 2019. That legislation is very similar to the qualified immunity section in the Reform, Shift and Build Act. Indeed, most of the Reform, Shift + Build Act builds on a number of bills that have been heard and received favorable approval by various joint committees. Much of the bill, with some exceptions, contains ideas that have been around for a long time. What’s different is the overwhelming political will to meet the moment of the Black Lives Matter movement and that starts – but doesn’t end with – police reform. 

Misinformation feeds many of the concerns about the bill. The proposed Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC) will be a 13 member committee with a balanced group of individuals nominated by various law enforcement agencies and civil rights organizations. One member will be a law enforcement officer below the rank of sergeant and any non-law enforcement members must have expertise in law enforcement practice and training.

School superintendents are now empowered to decide if school resource officers are right for their districts; the broader public now has the power to approve or reject departments' requests for military-grade equipment. 

Mental Health Resources for Crisis Responders

The bill makes substantive investments in mental health and crisis response; in speaking with Chiefs from the Cape and Islands, we know that 75-80% of calls are related to mental health, substance use, and domestic disputes. These are common sense approaches that many in law enforcement have supported for years – and I'm grateful for their general receptiveness to new forms of crisis response that prioritize techniques that we know work.

Building on Work to Train and Prepare Officers

I want to highlight that I filed an amendment to strengthen the Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC), amendment #125 to the bill. I have long fought to secure real dollars for police training (perhaps with some strings attached for transparency and accountability), otherwise these laws are unfunded mandates that aren’t realized and we don’t see change because all the training doesn't take place. These reforms and the underlying bill support dedicated police officers, while putting guardrails and accountability on problem officers and departments. I have long been a champion of funding for municipal police training. It isn't right for the state to ask officers to do more without resources and training. 

Closing Thoughts

I want to be clear: we cannot blame our national sin of racism and white supremacy solely at the feet of law enforcement. I have said often that we need a paradigm shift in policing, but if we confine our reforms to policing, we’re missing the mark and not seeing how structural racism pervades so many of our institutions across the Commonwealth and right here on Cape Cod.

With all things, I strive to listen and work in a collaborative way. I’ve had dozens of conversations with police chiefs and officers across the Cape & Islands District in the past several weeks. I would not support the legislation if I believed the bill it would put police officers, their families at risk, or public safety at risk. I believe the Reform, Shift +Build Act will make policing in Massachusetts better – it raises up all the tremendous work of dedicated, courageous, and kind police officers while holding bad actors accountable. There’s always room for improvement in any legislation, but broadly I was very proud to vote for the Senate’s bill.

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