Category Archives: Qualified Immunity

MA House Applies Crusher To Senate’s Police Reforms

Yesterday, the Massachusetts House launched their own version of a police “reform” bill (https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H4860).

TL;DR:
The House bill is, overall, far weaker than the Senate bill. We have till 1pm tomorrow to persuade House members to submit amendments. We want to see the Senate language on qualified immunityschool resource officerspolice stops, and military equipment approvals, in the House bill. We like the House’s face surveillance language better than the Senate’s. We don’t want, or need, yet more blue-ribbon commissions to consider at length What, If Anything, To Do. It’s quite clear what the problem is:

The police spy on, shoot and hurt people without probable cause, often for racist reasons. People who do that shouldn’t be police, and people it gets done to, should get to sue the people who did it to them.

There’s not much time. You can find your House Rep’s phone number at https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator. Please call this morning!

Here’s a quick summary of the key differences:

COMPARISON OF REFORM BILLSS2800H4860
Police rape of residents outlawed?YesYes
Qualified immunity limited?YesNo
School info sharing with “gang” database limited?YesYes
Government use of face surveillance banned?Temporary, plus RMVPermanent, minus RMV
Local discretion on whether to have police in schools?YesNo
Local elected official approval process for military equipment acquisition by police?YesNo
Chokeholds outlawed if intent or result of unconsciousness or death?YesYes
No-knock warrants limited?YesYes
Data collection on police traffic and pedestrian stops to prevent profiling?YesNo

In other words, the House bill has stronger provisions on face surveillance, but strips key language from the Senate version on qualified immunity, school resource officers, military equipment for police, and data collection on traffic stops. And as a last slap in the face to the Black community in Massachusetts, the House bill takes funds designated for securing racial equity in cannabis dispensary licenses, and redirected them to yet more police training.

At Digital Fourth, we would support a bill stronger than the Senate bill. Our optimal bill here would outlaw chokeholds, tear gas, other chemical irritants, the use of dogs at protests, and police rape; end qualified immunity, end information sharing of schools with the police and ICE, ban school resource officers, end the 1033 military equipment acquisition program, end no-knock warrants, end civil asset forfeitures, reverse the delays introduced by amendment in the Senate to the decertification process, and still collect data on all police stops.

The Senate bill at least represented progress, especially with the House provisions on face surveillance added. Therefore, we support all amendments adding the Senate language back in, excepting those relating to face surveillance. But the House bill – again, excepting the face surveillance provisions – is a betrayal of everyone genuinely concerned for equal justice, and deserves to wither in the fire.This is what happens now. 

You have till 1pm tomorrow to persuade your House member to submit or endorse amendments to the House bill. Then, House leadership will allow debate, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday, and vote on them and the bill. Then, the House and Senate will create a conference committee to try to agree common language. As you can see above, there are a lot of key differences. If the conference agrees on language, the bill goes back to both bodies for a vote, and then, if passed, it goes to the Governor’s desk. If the bill is not signed by the end of the session, which is currently scheduled for July 31, then the bill dies for this session, and would be reintroduced when the new session begins in January.

Good luck, and may the Fourth be with you!

Police Flooding Phone Lines To Block Basic Police Reforms: Call Now!

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.

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