Reform, Shift + Build Act seeks to raise police accountability standards

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Massachusetts State House

The Massachusetts State Senate on Tuesday, July 14, passed An Act to Reform Police Standards and Shift Resources to Build a More Equitable, Fair and Just Commonwealth that Values Black Lives and Communities of Color (S.2800). Known as the Reform, Shift + Build Act, the bill is designed to increase police accountability, shift the role of law enforcement away from surveillance and punishment, and begin to dismantle systemic racism.

Over the course of the last several weeks, a significant majority of my constituents have clearly stated that racial justice and police reform are deeply important to them,” said Sen. Becca Rausch (D-Needham). “I’ve seen thousands of people at physically distant Black Lives Matter demonstrations, had multiple conversations during virtual office hours, and received hundreds of emails supporting the content of the bill. The Reform, Shift + Build Act reflects what so many Bay Staters want in this moment of change: increased education around racism and implicit bias for our law enforcement, reducing violence in policing, and, whenever possible, shifting the focus toward assistance or healing rather than punishment.”

Rausch said that through the amendment process, she increased transparency and accountable data collection in the bill, by ensuring the information in the Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC) database will become part of the public record and increasing the frequency that municipal law enforcement departments must analyze and report their stop and search data.

We know that in order to be effective and just, data collection and reporting must be thorough and frequent,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to achieve that in this legislation.”

The Reform, Shift + Build Act bans chokeholds and other deadly uses of force except in cases of imminent harm. The bill also requires the use of de-escalation tactics when feasible, creates a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force, and expands and strengthens police training in de-escalation, racism and intervention tactics.

In response to national and state-level calls for change, the bill clarifies and restores to its original design the doctrine of qualified immunity. Under the legislation, the qualified immunity defense will remain, as long as a public official, including law enforcement, is acting in accordance with the law. The bill also makes clear that nothing in this bill impacts or limits existing indemnification protections for public officials.

The Reform, Shift + Build Act creates a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee (POSAC)— an independent state entity composed of law enforcement professionals, community members, and racial justice advocates—to standardize the certification, training, and de-certification of police officers. The POSAC includes six law enforcement members, both management and rank-and-file officers, seven non-law enforcement members and one retired judge. All non-law enforcement members will have experience with or expertise in law enforcement practice and training, criminal law, civil rights law, the criminal justice system, or social science fields related to race or bias.

The POSAC will receive all misconduct complaints, investigate complaints involving serious misconduct, and maintain a disclosure database. It will also prohibit nondisclosure agreements in police misconduct settlements and establish a commission to recommend a correctional officer certification, training, and de-certification framework.

To shift the balance of law enforcement techniques away from force and punishment, the bill seeks to demilitarize the police force by requiring transparency and civilian authorization for military equipment acquisitions. It also seeks to expand community-based, non-police solutions to crisis response and jail diversion by developing new evidence-based intervention models. The bill imposes a moratorium on the use of facial surveillance technology by government entities while a commission studies its use and creates a task force to study the use of body and dashboard cameras by law enforcement agencies.

The bill seeks to begin dismantling systemic racism by explicitly banning racial profiling, requiring racial data collection for all police stops and requiring reporting and analysis. A key component of the bill addresses the school-to-prison pipeline by making school resource officers optional at the discretion of the superintendent and preventing school districts from sharing students’ personal information with police, except for investigation of a crime or to stop imminent harm. The bill also expands access to record expungement for young people by allowing individuals with more than one charge on their juvenile record to qualify for expungement.

The bill also establishes the Strong Communities and Justice Reinvestment Workforce Development Fund to shift funding from policing and corrections towards community investment. Controlled by community members and community development professionals, the fund will make competitive grants to drive economic opportunities in communities most impacted by excessive policing and mass incarceration.

This bill is a vital step towards a new vision of public safety: one that’s built on accountability, deescalation, and care,” said Sen. Sonia Chang -Díaz (D-Boston), co-chair of Senate Working Group on Racial Justice. “It begins the long, necessary work of shifting power and resources to Black communities and communities of color who have, for too long, faced criminalization and punishment instead of investment. I’m grateful to my colleagues in the Racial Justice Working Group, Senate President Spilka, and the Ways & Means Chairman, Senator Rodrigues, for their dedication in bringing this bill forward. I’m especially thankful to the organizers, advocates, and protestors who have been fighting these battles for years and have made it impossible for us to look away now. We still have a long road ahead, but this marks a tremendous leap forward.”

The Senate adopted a number of amendments to strengthen the bill. One establishes a Latinx Commission, based on the existing Asian-American Commission and the African American Commission created in the current bill, to bring more underrepresented voices to the table and ensure equity in policy-making. Another prohibits de-certified law enforcement officers from becoming corrections officers, while a further amendment eliminates statutory language offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

One notable amendment creates a Commission on Structural Racism, which seeks to map out the systems impacting the Department of Corrections (DOC) mission using a structural racism lens. This commission will propose programming and policy shifts and identifying legislative or agency barriers to promoting the optimal operation of the DOC. It also creates a roadmap for the legislature to establish a permanent publicly funded entity to continue this work.

The Reform, Shift + Build Act now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for consideration.