Massachusetts Senate passes police accountability bill

From the Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Senate early Tuesday passed a police accountability bill that would place limits on the “qualified immunity” shielding officers from civil prosecution, put checks on the use of chokeholds and tear gas and require law enforcement officers to be licensed if it becomes law.

Democratic Senate President Karen Spilka tweeted at 5 a.m. that the final vote was 30-7.

“This begins the long, necessary work of shifting power and resources to Black communities and communities of color who have, for too long, faced criminalization and punishment instead of investment,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, said in a written statement after the vote.

Under the final version of the Senate bill, the concept of qualified immunity will remain as long as a police officer is acting in accordance with the law, according to Spilka’s office. The bill would not limit existing indemnification protections for public officials.

The measure has come under criticism from police unions and their supporters who argue that officers should not have to worry about potential lawsuits while on patrol.

Debate on the Senate bill was delayed several days by a Republican lawmaker.

Sen. Ryan Fattman used parliamentary procedures to delay debate for three consecutive days last week because he thought the bill was being rushed.

Another bill filed last month by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker would require that police be certified in Massachusetts.

Baker’s bill would allow for the decertification of officers who engage in excessive force, including chokeholds, or who fail to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.

Massachusetts is one of only a few states without a statewide law enforcement certification program.

The bill now moves to the House.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, has said he is committed to passing a bill, but it won’t come before the House holds a public hearing.

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the union for rank-and-file Boston officers, said in a tweet it was disappointed with the Senate’s vote, but hoped for a better process in the House.

“The fight goes on and the BPPA is already encouraged by @SpeakerDeLeo and his desire to seek and allow public feedback on ever important issues of basic fairness which include due process and qualified immunity,” the union said.

To make any laws about excessive force meaningful, the state must take a tougher stand against qualified immunity, said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

“While the ACLU and many of our allies still wish to see qualified immunity eliminated, we commend the Senate for taking this critical action and urge the House to do the same,” Rose said Tuesday in a written statement.

The bills are a response to demonstrations throughout the country following the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The Legislature’s formal session ends July 31.