The Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association has released a joint statement with the state legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus calling for reforms aimed at ending systemic racism among law enforcement. From establishing a Use of Force Review Board and banning chokeholds to enhancing training on de-escalation and racial bias, the document calls for a collaborative approach to pursuing racial justice. WAMC spoke with caucus chair Carlos Gonzalez, the Democratic State Representative from the 10th Hampden district, about the statement.
GONZALEZ: It's necessary that we bring to the table as the Black and Latino Caucus, and me as the chair, bring to the table all sides of this issue of police accountability and transparency. And as the state is looking to make some reforms, I thought it was important to meet with the sheriffs as well as the unions from the correctional institution, the police institution and the state police institution. So we've done that, and it's been beneficial for us to discuss the issues, have uncomfortable conversations, but also look at some of the issues that we all agree on. And I think we've accomplished that and the joint statement speaks for itself.
WAMC: What were those conversations like? Because it's quite a sweeping series of points that you came to a consensus on. I'm interested what was that conversation like with the sheriffs and the caucus?
The reality is that we see that this is systematic racism, and it doesn't matter where you come from, who you represent or where you work. It's right there staring us in the face, every single day that we go out of our homes. So I think knowing that, understanding that, and willing to participate in making and changing the climate of race relations in this city, in this state, in this country, I think speaks volumes for all the parties that were involved.
How do you hope that this kind of statement will translate into actual policy here in Massachusetts?
Well, when we have different sides, different opinions, coming together to look at what unites us, with a common cause: that racism is a public health issue, that accountability and transparency must be at the forefront of any police reform, that certification and decertification and duty to intervene are basic common sense issues, in my personal opinion, but difficult to establish legislation that makes everybody comfortable at the end of it all. But again, I believe that we're moving in the right direction. Government must be held accountable to the will of the people. And it doesn't matter again, where you work, or what community you live, or what race you are. This is one America.
Can you describe and maybe highlight some of the eight points your two organizations came together on in the joint statement?
Well, I think that the sheriff acknowledged and agreed with us, that anybody that has the badge or the ability to stop, apprehend or maintain somebody- Contain somebody, I should say- Is part of the law enforcement community. They're willing to be part of the police standards of training. I wish to hopefully change that word to be peace officer standards of training, that will provide top notch training to our law enforcement institution to be able to be prepared to deal with all the multiple issues that, you know, life has led us to change when it comes to policing. Police officers' role has changed in the community. Now they're dealing with mental health, domestic abuse, issues of violence, issue of race. It's a lot of issues that you know, we don't provide sometimes the appropriate training to deal with the amount of difficult situations one confronts as a officer on a day to day basis. When it comes to the correctional institutions, are no different. We have statistics proves that many individuals in our prison system are not there necessarily because of crimes, just there because of mental health issues. So, how do our corrections officers received the appropriate training to deal with some of the mental health issues and the drug and substance abuse issues that prevail in many of our communities? So, providing training and having standards of what meets excessive use of force, was an issue that, again, we've agreed on. I don't think that anybody wants to use an excessive use of force or feels that they may or may not be using excessive use of force. And now, us defining what is and what isn't will clearly identify what is the appropriate training and how do we determine if or not that person has abused the excessive use of force policy, once we have it established. Duty to intervene, No chokeholds and training, certification and decertification of somebody that, you know, doesn't meet the criteria of what we want our law enforcement officers to be is: The best in the nation, the best trained, but also the best in the nation.
When did this conversation begin?
The conversation with unions began in June, immediately once we started looking at ways to address the issue that happened in Minneapolis, correct? Now, we reached out first to the police's municipal association, and with the State Police Association and then it kept moving as we got an agreements from those groups, we kept moving down the ladder and with Sheriff Nick Cocchi, who we have full faith and confidence in his commitment and dedication, assisted in providing a united meeting with all the sheriffs. Honest conversations took place, and we came up to an agreement and they were willing, more so than what we expected, to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Does the caucus have any plans to further engage with other law enforcement agencies on similar statements in the coming months?
We will continue to meet with different groups that we feel that are important to this legislation on both sides. We've met with advocates and we'll meet with other groups we've reached out to the DA Association. We're asking for them to meet with us, if possible. Again, time is our enemy. We have a very limited time now as we need to get this bill from the House side and then conference committee and then to the governor's desk, in a very short period of time. So, yes, we're looking forward to be meeting with other groups. And we're always available to discuss both sides of the issues with any individual or groups.