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Expansive Policing Reform Bill Stuck in Mass. Senate

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After it became clear that the debate on a wide-ranging police reform bill would be postponed again, an emotional exchange broke out Friday on the Senate floor between Democratic colleagues in disagreement over the continued delay.

Sen. Ryan Fattman, R-Sutton, for a second consecutive day, used a parliamentary maneuver to delay debate, bringing a halt to planned consideration of nearly 130 amendments. Fattman has suggested that the bill, which was unveiled on Monday, is moving too quickly, is too expansive, and has not benefited from a public hearing.

While the Senate's rules do not speak to how many times a bill can be tabled, presiding officers have traditionally allowed bills to be tabled three times before ruling the motion to be dilatory, a custom that Senate President Karen Spilka cited Friday afternoon in an interview with the State House News Service.

"He's exerting the practice that we have. By custom, the Senate has allowed three laying on the table. Beyond that, by custom, it is recognized it is a dilatory and delaying tactic," Spilka said. "We are allowing the custom."

The bill would create an independent oversight and investigatory body to hold police accountable and create a system to certify law enforcement officers. Police officers would also be required to intervene if they witness police misconduct and undergo racism training. Language in the legislation bans choke holds, places restrictions on the use of tear gas, and limits qualified immunity.

Republicans were not alone in seeking more time to study the proposed law enforcement changes.

With Friday's planned debate already scrapped, Sen. John Keenan, D-Quincy, rose to say he supported Fattman's efforts "because I think this bill needs a little more work."

"We've got to get our arms around conveying to people what it is we're trying to do with this bill. What's really in this bill. And I'm afraid that we may have lost that battle already," Keenan said. "That in a society where people are going further and further apart, we find ourselves right in the middle of that. Not in the middle trying to draw people together, but with a bill that is well-intentioned, has good things, but for whatever reason is driving people apart."

Keenan became emotional as he recounted members of his own family who had served in law enforcement, including his great-grandfather, a Boston police officer who was shot in the line of duty, and said more needs to be done to understand their perspective.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, a leading proponent of the bill and the branch's lone member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said the Senate's racial justice working group "had people at the table who were bringing explicitly the perspective of law enforcement."

Standing one desk away from Keenan in the largely empty chamber, Chang-Diaz said the suggestion that the bill-crafting process was not inclusive is "B.S."

"The president's office, Ways and Means, myself, we met with stakeholder groups from law enforcement and wove their input into the bill," Chang-Diaz said. "Does it have everything they want? Of course not. Does it have everything that people from Roxbury want? Of course not, and I have to live with that discomfort. But to suggest that this process did not attempt to bring people together, I'm calling B.S. on that. People were at the table."

Spilka said there is public confusion regarding what the bill does and emphasized that it does not eliminate qualified immunity, a doctrine that prohibits civil rights suits against government officials where unconstitutional conduct had not been clearly established as illegal at the time it occurred.

"The bill absolutely does not eliminate qualified immunity. Colorado just passed a bill to totally eliminate it in the state. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill I think to totally eliminate it. We do not eliminate it. We just limit it," the Ashland Democrat said. "A police officer will continue to have the exact same immunity if his or her conduct was reasonable."

With only weeks until the end of formal sessions on July 31, the Senate is working against the calendar if they want to pass police reform legislation. Speaker DeLeo committed last month to put forth a proposal and send it to Baker's desk by the end of the month. A House bill has not emerged and both the governor and Black and Latino Legislative Caucus have emphasized the importance of sticking to points outlined in the caucus' 10-point plan.

"This bill only has a few days left, we can all do the math. We know how many steps it has to still get through after it leaves this chamber," Chang-Diaz said on the Senate floor. "And we know the calendar for getting a bill to the governor's desk with time to get it back, should he choose to amend it or veto it. All of us know that every day we delay this bill we are choking the breath out of this bill, and out of the political strength of communities of color and people who are pushing for racial justice right now."

Keenan urged cooperation with Baker and the House to achieve a consensus bill.

"I challenge us, the House of Representatives, and the executive branch to come together and work together on a bill that moves us forward, that we don't get caught up in House versus Senate versus executive," Keenan said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a letter Thursday to the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, reiterated his desire to "[work] together with the House and Senate on the specific, shared principles outlined by the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and proposed in our legislation."

Before adjourning Friday afternoon, the Senate agreed to hold a full formal session on Saturday at 10 a.m. Weekend sessions are rare but not unprecedented in the waning weeks of the legislative calendar.

The bill would create an independent oversight and investigatory body to hold police accountable and create a system to certify law enforcement officers. Police officers would also be required to intervene if they witness police misconduct and undergo racism training.

Asked whether Republicans might table the bill for a third time Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said it is a "fluid situation."

"It seems to me that the magnitude of some of the things that we're dealing with may take more than one day," the Gloucester Republican said, "but I am an eternal optimist and I hope that we can find a way to move forward even sooner than that."

Lawmakers did decide to postpone the debate again, and no Saturday session was held. The Senate is scheduled to meet again on Monday morning.

Copyright State House News Service
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