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Harrington Talks Police Reform Bill, Efforts Within Berkshires To End Systemic Racism

A woman in a blue suit stands in front of a set of stone stairs
Josh Landes
Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington at a June 2020 press conference in downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington is voicing her support for two new police reform bills passed by the Massachusetts legislature. The measures are now on Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s desk. Harrington, a first-term Democrat, spoke to WAMC about why she’s backing the measures — and why she thinks the Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST, system the legislation calls for is good for the commonwealth.

HARRINGTON: The best part of the police reform bill is the creation of the POST, it's called. And this is a statewide organization that would certify police officers and consider cases of misconduct in determining if officers should be decertified. In my office, we've worked, we've been working locally here with our local police chiefs and with the Massachusetts State Police on our Brady policy. And I think that this statewide vehicle would be a great tool for us to help organize to ensure that prosecutors like myself are getting any information that could be exculpatory in our prosecution, so I really like that system. And I think it would actually, you know, make the job of our local police department easier in terms of officer accountability and handling cases of misconduct.

WAMC: Now, at this point have you had conversations with various law enforcement heads around the county about what this legislation would mean for the region?

The conversations that I've had had largely been with the state police, and I've received positive feedback on the legislation. Our local police chiefs are right now reserving judgment until they see what it is that the governor has to say about the legislation. Another piece of the legislation that I'm a big fan of are restrictions on no-knock warrants. You know, what we saw in the Brianna Taylor case, of course, is just how a no-knock warrant can lead to tragedy and risking the lives of officers or risking the lives of people, citizens, in executing a search warrant in a drug case, or any kind of case where there is not, you know, actual threat to human life, I think is just unreasonable. So I'm really very supportive of restrictions on no-knock warrants.

You've been a part of conversations with other self-identified progressive DAs around the country. Where does this put Massachusetts in broader national conversations about police reform?

Well, the POST system is a system that is in almost every state. Massachusetts is one of five states that does not have some kind of central certification process. So in some ways we've been behind. But another way is, I've seen that our legislature actually responding to the protests, and the call that we saw this summer, to actually take action about racism in the justice system, is very inspiring. And there's a lot in this legislation that will put Massachusetts ahead of other states. I think the creation of all of these various commissions on really looking at the status of African Americans and our Latinx population, and people with disabilities and, and really digging in and determining how it is that our justice system is being unjust and unfair will put Massachusetts further ahead of the game in terms of our comparison to other states.

When it comes to racial disparities in the Berkshire County criminal justice system, one of the platforms of your campaign was to increase transparency about the system. And we've talked in the past, that's been one of the hardest things to bring to fruition, given the technological limitations of the office. Do you have a sense at this point from your internal tallying of what's going on in the courts that the work you're doing and this kind of broader police reform effort is having actually on the street and in the courts here in Berkshire County?

Everything that we've done in my office, every project, every initiative, every reform that we make, we always consider the impact on racial justice. For example, our cash bail policy. That is designed to benefit people who can’t afford to post bail and money, if money is the thing that's keeping you in jail pretrial, then that's obviously unjust. But that is designed to reduce the racial disparities because we knew that Black people were being charged five times higher median bail than white people in Central Berkshire District Court. Our juvenile justice initiative- that is designed to ensure that young people are given equal access to community-based treatment across the county, irrespective of what neighborhood they live in. But we do absolutely have a lot of work to do in terms of specifically looking at, you know, how people of color are overrepresented in the justice system. My office right now is- We are hard at work in developing our concrete policies and concrete evaluations of individual cases to ensure that we are treating people equitably. We make a lot of decisions that are discretionary. And when you look at the Harvard study that came out recently on racial justice in the courts, it's those decisions about what we charge people with and what kind of plea negotiations we have, and what kind of pleas we- What the results of pleas are that we bring to the judges, we know that those discretionary points are opportunities for us to you know, make sure that we're treating people equitably. So we expect to be rolling out a comprehensive, our comprehensive plan to address racial disparities, hopefully, this winter, early spring. So you know, when I look at what the legislature is doing, you know, I, I applaud them. But it's also, I think, they are setting a great example for the rest of us in the system, to take up the same kind of energy, and drive and passion for reform. And that's what we're doing in my office. And, you know, I hope to really continue my work with our local police in building confidence in our system, because right now, let's face it, like people don't have a lot of confidence in law enforcement and in the justice system.

Do you see any areas where this legislation could have gone farther?

Well, there's certainly is discussion about qualified immunity. And there's, the more progressive side is disappointed that this legislation doesn't include, you know, stronger restrictions on qualified immunity. And the legislation does set up a study group to study the issue. And, you know, I think it's worth studying. You know, there is concern from law enforcement that it can be- It's difficult right now, it's difficult to recruit people to join local police departments and to join the state police. And there was concerned that, you know, this sort of fear of, you know, lawsuits is something that could keep good people out of policing. So I think it's something that is definitely merit study and I look forward to the work of the commission further looking at that issue.

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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