Baker objects to the “Accountability” in “Police Accountability”

By | December 11, 2020

Last night I read through Charlie Baker’s objections to S.2693, the conference version of the Police Accountability Bill.

In his 13-page letter to both the House and Senate, Baker proposed extensive changes to the Legislature’s reforms. His main objection to Police Accountability was public accountability itself. Baker’s amendments to the Police Accountability bill remove:

  • civilian oversight
  • specifically, advice and oversight from racial justice groups
  • provisions to ban facial recognition

As Progressive Mass points out, Baker had three options. “(1) He could show that he cares about police accountability and listen to the activists demanding action and just sign it. (2) He could show that he doesn’t care and simply veto it. (3) Finally, he could again show that he doesn’t care, but by sending back amendments to weaken the bill. He chose #3.”

This wasn’t a passive veto, and yet it wasn’t Baker negotiating either. This was the governor mailing a Fuck You Very Much letter to racial justice advocates written for him by the Massachusetts police lobby.

After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered, Baker made all the right noises, giving lip service to the concerns of civil rights groups, civil libertarians, and people of color. In early December Globe columnist Joan Vennochi asked, “Will Charlie Baker back police reform or police unions?” It was mainly a rhetorical question, as she reminded the governor that it ought to be a no-brainer since he claimed to believe in the bill’s reforms. In the end, of course, Baker caved to the police unions.

In rejecting civilian oversight Baker even regurgitated the police line: “I do not accept the premise that civilians know best how to train police.”

Until recently the United States has had a tradition of excluding ex-military from running the Pentagon. Baker himself ought to understand how it works: the National Guard is ultimately under his command, not its own. Only in weak and failed states are paramilitary organizations accountable only to themselves.

But in rejecting civilian control Baker struck a number of sections from S.2963 (3, 5, 7-8, 12, 14, 17, 19-20, 24-25, 27-29, 31-36, 40, 55-56, 62, 66, 71, 75-76, 81-82, 88-89, 93, and 121) — for the most part simply restoring the name of the training committee from the Legislative reforms to the original “municipal police training committee.”

Baker also struck section 26, which barred the use of facial recognition, and significantly modified section 30, which requires officers to use proportional force and de-escalation techniques and which prescribes decertification and revocation procedures. Baker’s section 30 makes officer misconduct subject (as before) to internal affairs investigations that can take up to a year or more to complete and places additional constraints on officer interrogation. Who else gets to investigate themselves but police? And where else but a police state?

It was apparent that the unions had leaned heavily on Baker because he also removed section 60, which specifies the process required for an officer to return to work after a year-long break in service; and section 61, which describes requirements for returning from physical or mental disability. Baker also removed Section 74, which defines an officer as a trainee regardless of collective bargaining agreement, until the officer has completed his certification course.

There are few bright spots in Baker’s hollowed out and gutted version of police accountability. But one may be that the Governor left the Legislature’s changes to SRO programs in place, the most important of which gives School Superintendents discretion to use SROs instead of Police Chiefs.

Baker’s letter to the Legislature opens by completely cutting the public out of public oversight of the police and restructuring the Municipal Police Training Committee. His letter calls for 16 voting appointees, each to serve a 3 year term: five police chiefs by region; one selected by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association; one of his own choice; one officer from the Massachusetts Police Association Executive Board; two sheriffs of his choosing (God help us if one is Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson); the chair of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement (Eddy Chrispin); president of Massachusetts Association of Women in Law enforcement (Marie Cleary); Boston Police Commissioner (William Gross); Colonel of the State Police (Christopher Mason); Attorney General (Maura Healey); and one person designated by his EOPSS Secretary.

The Municipal Police Training Committee also includes several non-voting members from: Personnel Administration; Corrections; Youth Services; Probation; Parole Board; Committee on Criminal Justice; Chief Justice of the Trial Court; Chief justice of the District Court; Commissioner of Education; Massachusetts Bar Association; Special Agent in charge of the Boston FBI; a District Attorney; and a grab-bag including city administrators; the Clerk of Superior Court; one social worker; one mental health clinician; and one lonely public defender.

Baker’s training committee is responsible for re-writing policies for Use of Force and hiring new officers. Given that the public now has no say in their own policing, neither the type of officers hired nor the manner in which they are trained to shoot to kill or interact with civilians will change.

No reforms, no oversight, no accountability, no change. Just the way the police lobby likes it.

But Blue Lives most certainly matter to the Governor. Baker’s police version ensures that police officers get a 2-hour in-service course each year to help them with their PTSD and suicide prevention, and each officer will attend and complete a course on mental wellness and suicide prevention. Unfortunately, the public won’t know which officers are time bombs ready to go off. But even if we could identify them, we’d have no say in removing or disciplining them.

The tepid reforms that made it into the conferenced version of S.2963 were weak and disappointing enough after the House stripped out limits on Qualified Immunity. But now the governor is determined to deliver the coup de grace to police accountability. Police will continue to be accountable only to themselves, shielded by a governor who has decided that Black and brown lives don’t matter all that much — and that the real goal of police reform is complete impunity for cops.

Ignoring the concerns of people of color, deaf to the demands of civil rights and racial justice advocates, Baker’s edits are not only bad — they’re an insult to the people of the Commonwealth, especially those who need protection from bad cops the most.