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Hinds On Contentious Debate Over Mass. Police Oversight Bill

State Senator Adam Hinds holds a microphone at an outdoor event.
Becki Joppru Connolly
State Senator Adam Hinds

Early Tuesday morning, the Massachusetts State Senate passed a sweeping new police oversight bill after hours of debate. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts applauds the measure, while the state’s largest police union has criticized one of its key elements. Republican Governor Charlie Baker has also proposed his own police oversight bill, which remains in committee. WAMC spoke with Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district about the legislation’s reforms, and why rolling back legal protections for police officers prompted the session to run over 17 hours.

HINDS: We really were very deliberate in trying to reform, and kind of strengthen use of force standards: limiting qualified immunity for law enforcement agents, doing a pretty big step forward on things like chokeholds and banning chokeholds. Banning other uses of deadly force and things of that nature. Focusing on that how to de-escalate the situation, a duty to intervene for officers who witness abuse of force, and the like. We also put in place a Police Officer Standards and Accreditation Committee, so that now we have a certification process, and people can be decertified in a situation where there is a problem. And so that was a big piece. We're actually joining a lot of other states in doing that. We go even further, in kind of putting a moratorium on facial surveillance technology and in the range of other items that we're kind of putting on track, including related to body and dashboard cameras, but first putting in place a taskforce. We're also pretty clear around- You know, there's a need to reinvest, and so we have a Justice Reinvestment Fund that is coming out of this. And as money- Because we've taken a couple of swipes at this, including through a criminal justice reform act, as we have- We're spending less and less money on criminal justice, we think that same money needs to go directly into communities that have been disproportionately impacted with engagement with law enforcement. There are other efforts in the bill to demilitarize the police force, including by requiring transparency and civil authorization if there are any acquisitions of military equipment. And so it really is comprehensive. It's over 70 pages that- And we had 150 amendments we're working through, because quite honestly, we wanted this to be a comprehensive swipe at this. The opportunity does not come that often. And, and so we're really, we included other elements, including how to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. And so releasing the requirement for school resource officers to be in the schools and saying that superintendents have the choice to bring them into the school, again, with engagement with school committees and the like. And so, you know, I was incredibly pleased with this. There were some controversial pieces that we can talk about. But overall, I think we're all faced with the reality that the time for reform and a realignment in America of law enforcement, was long overdue. We've seen recent incidents that have only highlighted what's part of a bigger problem. And so, you know, when I've talked with police officers in my district, there's a recognition that we needed to realign and correct the course and that's what we did.

WAMC: The bill ultimately passed 30 to 7, but only after an extraordinarily long period of debate. Senator Hinds, what led to that extended debate that went on until the wee hours of Tuesday morning?

I would say that related to qualified immunity. And so there's been this problem, and quite honestly, I tried to frame it in my remarks on the floor, that we're often faced with this unfair and false choice, where a lot of folks are very clear, we want to be unapologetic about support for police officers. And at the same time, you can also be unapologetic about the need to ensure the fundamental rights of individuals. And so an impediment to, even going after an agreed problem like, you know, the 'bad apple' officer, even we all agreed on that, yet there was an inability to do that because the statute and the, you know, the legal parameters for qualified immunity have set the bar so high and so specified that there was an inability to do that, even in egregious cases right here in Massachusetts. And so what we tried to do is reset that balance and apply a reasonableness standard. And so now, all we did was say that, look, qualified immunity should not be applied in civil matters when a public official behaved in a way that they should know is unlawful. So, you know, qualified immunity still exists, indemnification still exists, that, you know, no officers or public official will be losing their homes even when they are sued. But there's a reasonableness that has not been present. And so that was what really, I would say, held things up and, but as a result, we didn't gavel out until after 4 a.m.

The Massachusetts Coalition of Police has described the removal of qualified immunity as, and I'm quoting here, "deeply unfair and potentially dangerous", and they describe it as removing officers’ right to due process in the workplace. What do you say to criticism like that?

First of all, it's wrong. This does not remove qualified immunity. So let's be clear. The downside to this debate, and this is what's really unfortunate about where our politics and our community discourse is today, is that we're so divided that you cannot even have a conversation on a topic on the merits, and we've all felt that like in the recent weeks leading up to this vote. And it's just this unfair litmus test of even on issues we agree on, as I said, going after the bad apples, we can't be seen as going, supporting change, because it's going to be going against this litmus test of either you're with us or against us. So, first of all, there, this was not getting rid of qualified immunity. It is saying that when you have these cases, and the George Floyd example is only one of the latest, where there's clearly bad action, you need to have the ability to take action. And that's slightly different because that's ultimately a criminal case, we're talking about civil matters. And so, what the problem here is, we've seen a lot of misinformation spread in the lead up to this vote and that has not helped.

In your time in office, have you seen a debate as contentious as this?

I have not. And I think that was a common theme last night, as everyone recognize that, you know, if you're like me, you grow up with this understanding, and you're being taught that there are institutions in your community that deserve respect, they're based on service and sacrifice. And, you know, that includes your teachers and your nurses and firefighters, and of course, police. And yet, you know, I also grew up without this recognition, and I was not taught sufficiently about the different application of institutions if you're a person of color. And so, when I was growing up, what I was taught growing up, was we need to do all we can to protect civil rights and pursue equal justice. And so it's a contentious debate that we were engaged in, but it's a necessary one. It was long overdue, and we should all be happy with where we landed.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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