Massachusetts lawmakers pass policing reform bill to ban chokeholds and limit tear gas use

Massachusetts lawmakers pass policing reform bill to ban chokeholds and limit tear gas use

Massachusetts state legislators passed a sweeping police reform bill Tuesday that amends use of force and training policies and tailors law enforcement legal protections.

The bill is the latest state-level effort to address the way police work, how they’re governed and how they’re investigated when accused of misconduct. Federal reform measures introduced in the US House and Senate in the wake of the killing of George Floyd both stalled this summer, and more than two dozen states have enacted changes of their own since May.

The lengthy piece of legislation passed in Massachusetts limits the grounds for law enforcement use of tear gas and rubber pellets during protests, and bans chokeholds and carotid restraints in the state.

It is unclear whether Gov. Charlie Baker will sign the bill into law by the 10-day deadline. Baker, who is a Republican, told reporters Tuesday that he couldn’t yet comment on the legislation because he hadn’t reviewed the latest version.

A dozen other states have addressed chokeholds and carotid restraints in recent months, some banning them outright and some setting laws governing when they’re allowed and outlining consequences for breaking policy or law.

Chokeholds restrict a person’s airflow. Carotid restraints (sometimes called “sleeper holds”), which are often defended by law enforcement officials, are meant to cause someone to quickly black out by restricting their blood flow.

The Massachusetts bill also limits the use of “no-knock warrants,” a law enforcement search tactic at the heart of the death of Breonna Taylor that led to protests across the country.

Law enforcement training practices would also be more standardized under the legislation, which would create a commission for overseeing standards.

The commission will oversee certification of officers and investigate and decertify officers for substantiated misconduct. Current law enforcement officers will be automatically certified, but all officers will eventually have to periodically renew their certification status.

The legislation would also increase public transparency of law enforcement personnel records by putting some records in a public database and make others available through formal records requests.

A special legislative commission included in the plan would also convene to study the legal and policy impact of the controversial legal doctrine that protects police officers and other government employees from liability after violating the constitution, unless the unconstitutionality was “clearly established” by prior cases.

The Massachusetts reform bill revokes “qualified immunity” protection for officers who face legal action after they’ve been decertified for misconduct violating the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

Baker says he ‘can’t speak to the specifics’ until full review

Baker said he can’t speak to the specifics of the bill until further review.

“Until we have a chance to actually read the thing, which, I mean, we haven’t even talked to our own lawyers about it yet, I’m not going to comment beyond that, but will just say that I’m glad that the Legislature moved forward on this,” Baker said Tuesday. “I’m glad this is something that was part of what they considered to be important to get done before the end of the session, but I can’t speak to the specifics of this until we have a chance to review it.”

Lawmakers took four months to come up with the amended version that combined the house and senate drafts of the bill.

Despite having a majority in both legislative houses, Massachusetts Democrats were divided on the vote, unable to achieve a veto-proof majority Tuesday.

No state Republican lawmakers supported the bill. It is unclear if Democratic legislative leaders could garner the votes to override a veto from the governor.

Lawmakers garner criticism from local police union leaders

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts praised legislators for their efforts to reform police practices.

“Massachusetts lawmakers have acknowledged and responded to the urgent local and nationwide demands for police accountability and justice—justice for Black and brown people who are disproportionately hurt by police misconduct,” ACLU Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose said in a statement.

But local police union leaders have criticized lawmakers for not including law enforcement stakeholders in the bill-writing process.

“Obviously we’re disappointed. I think that this whole thing is a kneejerk reaction to something that didn’t take place in Massachusetts,” state Fraternal Order of Police President Todd Bramwell said.

“We’re having no seat at the table to work on something together. If something that needs to be worked on then by all means, work on something that makes sense. But to have someone sit there and do Monday morning quarterbacking, who has no idea what law enforcement is, to start making up laws and rules, it just seems a little silly.”

State Sen. William Brownsberger, a Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, defended the reform bill, telling CNN, “actually, law enforcement officers were included at many stages of the process in the normal way.”

“What often happens, though, is that some people were not personally involved and therefore feel that they were left out,” he said.

Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP) leaders called the bill an “abridgement of basic due process rights of police” in a memo issued to its members urging them to contact their representatives in a last-ditch effort to quash the bill Tuesday.

“The conference committee has taken a radical, cruel swipe at those sworn to protect and serve. They seek to punish police just for being police,” the letter, posted on the group’s website, says.

In the letter, the MassCOP officials acknowledged the importance of enhanced police training and commissions addressing historic biases and other challenges. But the officials said the bill as written will micromanage police operations in a way that will put officers and the public in danger.

CNN reached out to MassCOP for comment after the vote, but did not immediately hear back.

26 other states have enacted laws since Floyd’s death

Twenty-six other states have enacted laws in the six months since George Floyd was killed, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Much of the legislation passed by states in the last six months is aimed at expanding the type of information police agencies make public or report to state legislatures or other oversight bodies.

Eight states have enacted laws aimed at gathering better data related to policing, six have increased oversight or commissioned studies and three have done both, NCSL data shows.

Fourteen states have enacted laws related to use of force. Ten states have enacted laws related to training. Eleven states have enacted laws relating to certification of officers and issues related to discipline. Eight states have made changes to the way misconduct and excessive force is investigated.

Both the US House and Senate introduced their own versions of police reform.

The House passed a bill that limited qualified immunity as a defense for police and corrections officers. It lowered the standard of liability from “willfully” violating the law to a “knowing or reckless” disregard.

The House passed its bill, but the Senate did not — and unless the Senate acts before a new congress is sworn in this January, the process will have to start over with a new congress.

The US Supreme Court declined to take a closer look at “qualified immunity” in June.

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