BOSTON — Police officers accused of wrongdoing could be brought before a board mostly composed of civilians with the power to suspend them and take away their credentials.
The nine-member panel, a key provision of a proposal to overhaul policing in Massachusetts, would include six civilians and three members of law enforcement. It would have the authority to revoke police credentials for officers found to have committed wrongdoing, such as the use of excessive force.
Gov. Charlie Baker filed the proposal in response to demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police officers earlier this year. But lawmakers changed the measure to make the police board independent of the state and expanded its powers.
Massachusetts is among a handful of states that doesn’t certify police. Officers attend an academy and get continued training throughout their careers, but it’s up to local departments to oversee it. They are also required to pass a civil service exam, which wouldn’t change under credentialing. The proposal doesn’t explain how the two systems would interact, but would create a new commission to “study” the civil service law.
A civilian majority on the new credentialing board, as well as its broad investigative powers, would also make the state an outlier.
Members of similar boards in other states are “predominantly” law enforcement, said Mike Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which provides guidance on credentialing standards.
“I’m not aware of any state with a civilian board,” he said.
Becar said police credentialing systems are effective in making law enforcement more professional and accountable to the public.
“Before the commissions were created in the 1970s there was a lot of unprofessionalism and problems in law enforcement,” he said.
Under the proposal now being considered, officers who are investigated for wrongdoing by their department could have their cases referred to the Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.
An investigative arm of the commission would probe the allegations and make disciplinary recommendations to the panel.
The commission would hold hearings to determine whether an officer should be stripped of their credentials in addition to whatever disciplinary action they face from their police department.
Officers would be allowed to hire a lawyer to defend themselves, similar to court proceedings. The panel’s decisions could be appealed.
The list of infractions that could land a police officer in front of the panel run the gamut from being charged with a felony to being fired for use of excessive force, making false arrests, destroying or tampering with evidence, falsifying timesheets, engaging in hate crimes or taking bribes.
If officers are decertified, they also could be stripped of legal protections for actions they take on the job, known as qualified immunity. Their names would also be added to the National Decertification Index, a database of police misconduct. Police agencies routinely check the registry to see if a new hire has had issues in other jurisdictions.
The system would offer another path for officers whose misconduct doesn’t rise to the level of decertification.
Officers could could be suspended and required to undergo retraining if the panel determines they’ve engaged in “unprofessional conduct”; discriminated against someone on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity or “immigration status”; or failed to report wrongdoing by fellow officers, according to the proposal.
Police unions have ripped the legislation, arguing that it goes far beyond the credentialing system they had supported.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Police said the panel would have the authority “to revoke an officer’s certification and end his or her employment even before a complete internal affairs investigation and disciplinary hearing” is conducted.
The State Police Association of Massachusetts also opposes the measure, saying it “creates layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and costly commissions staffed by political appointees with no real world experience in policing and the dangers officers face every day.”
Baker also had concerns with the re-write of his proposal, specifically plans to give a civilian commission oversight of police training.
Last week, Baker sent the measure back to lawmakers with several recommended changes, saying he wouldn’t sign the bill if they aren’t implemented.
Neither the state House nor Senate has taken steps to adopt or reject Baker’s changes to the bill. They must act before the legislative session expires at the end of the year. Otherwise the reform proposal dies and would have to be introduced again next year.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the North of Boston Media Group. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.