The Senate overcame a difficult roll-out and several false starts to pass a far-reaching reform of policing in Massachusetts on Tuesday that would ban choke-holds, limit the use of tear gas, license all law enforcement officers and train them in the history of racism.
The vote in the upper chamber now shifts the focus of the debate over racism and policing to the House with just weeks left to finalize a bill that has vaulted to the top of the Legislature's end-of-session agenda.
The Senate bill, which was developed after weeks of public protest around the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, would impose a new level of oversight on police that has been proposed for years on Beacon Hill, but has failed to gain traction until now.
It would also controversially scale back a legal protection for police and other public employees that currently shields them from civil lawsuits unless there was a clearly established violation of law.
Democratic leaders, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, weighed in to support the effort of Senate leaders to limit qualified immunity, while the state's largest police union singled out that provision as one that would leave police officers second-guessing themselves on the job.
The Senate passed the bill 30-7 just after 4 a.m. on Tuesday after a long day of debate and an overnight session that spanned more than 17 hours.
The thrust of the bill is to create a new independent commission -- the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee -- that would certify all law enforcement officers and give the independent agency the power to renew, revoke or otherwise modify their licenses.
The new committee could also conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct, including the excessive use of force. Police would need to be re-certified every three years, and the state would maintain a searchable database for police departments hiring new officers to review an applicant's history.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Police, which represents 4,300 officers in 157 communities, supported the new licensing requirements, but raised objections to how quickly the bill was pushed through without a public hearing. Other groups representing minority law enforcement officers said they were excluded from the development of the bill.
"Not only am I a police officer, I am a black man and I am probably better able to speak to concerns of people of color than Senator (William) Brownsberger," said Eddy Chrispin, president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
The police union and other law enforcement groups called on the Senate to suspend its debate until a public hearing could be held, but that did not slow down lawmakers who continued to work their way through the dozens of amendments after days of setbacks.
But police reform advocates applauded the change, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Its executive director, Carol Rose, wrote in a statement, "This bill takes significant steps to protect people and to strengthen police accountability in the Commonwealth. We applaud Senate leadership for their initiative in crafting a bill that begins to respond to the urgency of this historic moment, and for their resolve in championing necessary reforms in the face of pressure to maintain the status quo."
Despite little disagreement over many of the core elements of the bill, the issue of qualified immunity for police became one of the central points of contention.
Senate leaders proposed new limits on qualified immunity, which if approved would make Massachusetts the second state after Colorado to increase the exposure of police officers to civil lawsuits to ensure they can be held accountable for their action on duty.
A Suffolk University poll in late June conducted for WGBH News, the News Service and other outlets found that 75 percent of Massachusetts residents think people should be able to sue police officers individually for misconduct, compared to just 18.2 percent who said they shouldn't be able to sue.
Only 5.4 percent of people said they were undecided, according to the poll.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo, in a statement early Monday evening, said he hoped to have a virtual hearing on the Senate bill this week. In a departure from the typical committee process, the House Ways and Means Committee and members of the House Judiciary Committee will jointly solicit feedback from lawmakers and other interested parties.
DeLeo said the unusual process was the result of the limited amount of time left in the formal legislative year, which is scheduled to end on July 31. The speaker's emphasis on soliciting public feedback drew a clear contrast with the Senate's process that had been criticized for days leading up to Monday's vote.
"Despite a changed timetable, House leadership remains committed to working with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and House colleagues to take decisive action through omnibus legislation. We look forward to reviewing the Senate’s engrossed bill and the work ahead," DeLeo said.
That the debate took place at all on Monday was a breakthrough for the Senate.
Baker last month filed his own legislation to create a system for licensing police and holding them accountable to a set of professional standards, but that bill is before the Committee on Public Safety and has not yet had a public hearing.
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