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All Eyes On Massachusetts Policing Legislation, 'Very Important To Many People'

Rev. Rashaan Hall speaks outside the Massachusetts Statehouse Friday, July 17, 2020. Hall is the racial justice program director at ACLU Massachusetts, and said qualified immunity has allowed police officers to escape civil liability.
Chris Van Buskirk
/
State House News Service
Rev. Rashaan Hall speaks outside the Massachusetts Statehouse Friday, July 17, 2020. Hall is the racial justice program director at ACLU Massachusetts, and said qualified immunity has allowed police officers to escape civil liability.

The Massachusetts Senate passed police reform legislation this week that looks to ban chokeholds, create a certification process for police, and limit the use of tear gas, among other things. The bill now moves on the House.

State Senator Mark Pacheco wants broad support for the compromise version of the bill.

"I hope we can come together on a piece of legislation where all of labor signs on to the final language," Pacheco said. "That we have the representation of the black and brown community, and minority communities."

There are just two weeks left in the Massachusetts state legislative session. The House and Senate have had their differences of opinions of late, and that's led to struggles in getting bills passed.

Panelist Mike Dobbs said he thinks the policing bill is a "huge issue."

"I think it's an issue, though, that will probably be seen as having a fair amount of priority attached to it, simply because of the mood of the country, the mood of the commonwealth," Dobbs said. "So if I'm gonna be asked to predict something, I predict that they're going to try to get this done before the end of the session, because it is very important to many people."

One state senator who didn't vote for the bill is Democrat John Velis of Westfield. He told The Daily Hampshire Gazette he thought more research needed to be done on the issue of qualified immunity for police officers, which protects public employees from lawsuits. This bill reduces those protections.

Panelist Natalia Muñoz said she thinks Velis is right to want to slow down the process on qualified immunity, and call for more information before he makes a final decision.

"I think, much like with defunding the police — where, for instance, in Northampton, 10% was cut from the Northampton police department's budget, just without even thinking what the consequences could be," Muñoz said. "I think he's doing the right thing of, 'Well, let's look at what the consequences could be,' before we do what may feel good at the moment, but the next day, we'll all go, 'Oh my goodness, now there's a series of unintended consequences.' I think thoughtfulness in policy-making is exactly what is lacking, so I think he was smart to try to slow down that process."

Some supporters of the legislation point to a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice about the Springfield Police Department's narcotics unit. The report says officers repeatedly punched suspects in the head, but never reported the incidents.

Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said the incidents mentioned in the report are under investigation. 

"The police department probably never has had a policy [that says] if you put your hands on someone, it's excessive force, we should be reporting it," Clapprood said. "And if that's the way that law enforcement is going and that's the standards they want us to meet, then that's the change we'll make."

That statement from Clapprood didn't sit well with Muñoz.

"It's surprising that the police commissioner of Springfield sounds so lackadaisical about this," Muñoz said. "This should have been reported from the get-go. Using violence, using physical violence against anybody, should be reported."

And Dobbs wrote this week that he's "mad as hell" about the public pushback aimed at requests from health officials for people to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. He's also disheartened by comments critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It's frustrating to me — at my age, being an elderly guy at this point — seeing how little progress we have made when it really comes to civil rights in this country. And what's going on right now points that out," Dobbs said. "So yes, I got angry."

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