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With New Mass. Police Reform Law In Place, Conversations Continue At Local Level

Springfield, Massachusetts, police and detectives at the scene of a shooting in 2017.
Patrick Johnson
creative commons / flickr.com/photos/paddyj1325
Springfield, Massachusetts, police and detectives at the scene of a shooting in 2017.

More than two months after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a police reform law inspired by nationwide and local protests over the police killing of George Floyd, conversations on many of the same issues contemplated in that sweeping legislation are happening on the municipal level.

Cities and towns have taken a varied approach to local reform, with their efforts and timing often informed by the new law. Some communities, Boston among them, have signed onto the Obama Foundation's Mayor's Pledge initiative, which asks officials to review and reform use-of-force policies, and others have charted their own paths.

The Worcester City Council on Tuesday referred City Manager Edward Augustus' February recommendations for addressing structural racism to various council committees for further discussion. The wide-reaching recommendations include removing police officers from Worcester Public Schools, creating a team of social workers and other licensed professionals to respond to mental health events, banning facial recognition technology, establishing paid cadet programs to promote a more diverse workforce in the police and fire departments and developing a public database of use-of-force complaints and other related data.

Along with creating a new police accountability and oversight system, the law Baker signed on Dec. 31 set limits on law enforcement's use of face-recognition technology and did away with a statewide requirement that districts have at least one school resource officer, making that a local call.

Augustus' recommendations are subject to council approval, and most will require city funding. Under the executive order, Worcester also plans to undertake a racial equity audit, expand racial equity and implicit bias training and make diversity, equity and inclusion a central focus of its strategic planning.

In recent months, some Worcester residents questioned the pace of local reforms. Eric Batista, director of the Office of Urban Innovation, said the city intentionally waited until legislative changes were finalized to ensure its proposal would align with state requirements.

"As a local community, if you take the initiative to start to create recommendations or policies or budget allocations, et cetera, ahead of what the state is recommending, you can get into a situation where, one, you spend money that you're not supposed to spend, or create a policy that conflicts with what the state is doing," Batista said.

To develop the recommendations, city officials worked with community organizations such as Black Families Together, the Latino Empowerment and Organizing Network and the Human Rights Commission, as well as residents who brought their concerns to the City Council.

In a recent video call, Worcester officials described the recommendations as a first step in a long process.

"We're not coming into this saying we have all the answers and it's going to be this magical thing with unicorns and butterflies," Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Williams told the News Service. "We're saying that we're humble enough to take this step, transparent enough to articulate what's working and what's not and cognitive enough to know that we need the community's efforts and voice on this."

In some municipalities, residents report feeling frustrated and left out of the process.

Springfield organizations including the Pioneer Valley Project and the local NAACP chapter have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a consent decree that would mandate reforms in the police department there.

In July, the DOJ released findings of its investigation into the department's narcotics bureau, which identified a "pattern or practice of using excessive force" within the unit.

Tara Parrish of the Pioneer Valley Project said the organization has been disappointed with what she described as a lack of transparency and urgency to address concerns in the police department.

"We've tried over and over again to meet with our mayor and our police commissioner to engage in dialogue. We've been met with silence and refusal to meet, and then followed by a tightly controlled supposed community forum," Parrish said.

She added, "We don't have any confidence that there's any intention on the part of this department to respond in a proactive way to what the DOJ has said are systemic problems."

Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood responded to a request for comment with an email listing several reform efforts she said the department has recently undertaken, including a new use-of-force policy, a Behavioral Health Network program to deploy mental health workers to incidents, a body-worn camera program and a peer support initiative for officers.

Clapprood said ongoing negotiations with the justice department are confidential, and that she does not have the power to single-handedly implement the recommendations outlined in the agency's investigation.

"Many more programs and policies are waiting for final decisions from DOJ negotiation and from decisions made on the [state] reform bill," she said in the email. "We are too large a department to implement policy one way and try to change course a month or so later."

Engaging the community has been a challenge for some local bodies, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when there are fewer opportunities for face-to-face outreach.

Ellen Maxon, chair of the Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board, said residents don't often provide input during meetings, and the board wants to work on encouraging more public participation going forward.

The group primarily focuses on reviewing police department policies and giving feedback on filed complaints, and recently approved a new policy on law enforcement interactions with transgender individuals (PDF). Maxon said in the future, the board would also like to take on a more active role in the complaint review process, ideally reviewing complaints before the department determines whether or not they are founded.

"We can't do that unless it is a complaint filed directly with us instead of through the police department,” Maxon said. "And we have a member offer any insights they may have after reading the complaint, but the actual investigation is still done internally."

Nicole Hendricks, facilitator and independent consultant for the Mayor's Pledge Work Group in Easthampton, said the state's new requirements around accountability and transparency are a "welcome reform." Part of the role of municipalities is ensuring that citizens are involved in those conversations at the local level.

"I think generally, with thousands of municipal and local police agencies, there is a wide range of openness and accessibility and accountability and transparency," Hendricks said. "And just because police departments will now be required to file information and data and report to state entities doesn't mean that they’re going to be posting all of those data and reports on their own websites."

Hendricks declined to share details of the Easthampton work group's recommendations, which have not yet been finalized. She said the group is launching a community safety survey and targeted outreach efforts to gather feedback from local residents after previous listening sessions were not as well attended as the group had hoped.

The final report will inform continued reform efforts by local organizations, elected officials and residents, she said, noting that residents should have a say in how police are held accountable.

"If we're interested in creating fair and equitable communities, people need to be a part of defining what their own communities need in relation to safety," Hendricks said. "And they need information to do that."

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