On Bastille Day, at 4:20am, the Massachusetts Senate passed a 70-page police reform bill. Two weeks remain for the House to consider it, and for the governor to sign it, in the midst of an acute public health and economic crisis. Police organizations are burning up the phone lines to prevent the House from acting on it. Please call your House Rep today, to prevent the House from mincing its key provisions into oblivion.
In our view, the key provisions are:
- Police rape of people in their custody will be outlawed.
- Police will no longer be able to use qualified immunity as a defense in civil lawsuits, unless “no reasonable person” could have considered the behavior at issue to be unlawful. This will sharply increase the chance that a resident whose rights the police violate, can obtain damages.*
- Police will no longer be able to use face surveillance. This moratorium extends through December 31, 2021.
- Police will no longer be legally obliged to provide school resource officers. It will be up to the school superintendent whether they want to ask for an officer.
- School information sharing with police “gang” units not connected to an immediate threat to life, will be barred.
- Chokeholds that have the “intent or result” of causing “unconsciousness or death” are banned.
- No-knock warrants will now only be issued if a judge attests that there is probable cause of an imminent danger to life.
- Elected officials will be able to review and approve or disapprove of police military equipment acquisitions, after public hearings.
S2800 also has some important flaws and limitations:
- It does nothing to reform the fusion centers, which spy on Massachusetts residents uninvolved in actual crimes.
- It does nothing directly to assist people and communities wrecked by the banal daily evils of the carceral state, and was not constructed on the basis of deep, lengthy or substantive conversations with them.
- It leaves in place our unjust civil asset forfeitures system, which steals millions annually in cash, cars and other property.
- It’s weighed down with an array of futile language appointing commissions and funding retraining of police.
- The language relating to face surveillance, tear gas, chokeholds and police decertification processes is weaker than we would like. We’re advocating separately relating to the face surveillance provisions.
However, based on long experience, we also believe that if any of the bill’s good provisions had come up before the Public Safety Committee during the regular committee process, they would have failed; and that there’s simply not enough time left in the two-year legislative session, which ends July 31, to start over with a broader and more consultative process.
We’re not waiting another two years. Taken together, this bill represents substantial progress towards our goal of restoring the Fourth Amendment in Massachusetts. Please call today!
*If found liable, the individual officer would still be indemnified against personal loss, except for portions of a judgment exceeding $1 million, for actions committed outside the scope of their official duties, and for actions that are “wilful, wanton or malicious” (MGL ch. 258 s. 9A). In practice, this means that public budgets will still bear 99.98% of the cost burden for police misconduct.