In response to the murder of George Floyd, Massachusetts, like many states, was finally motivated to take on the issue of police reform. Massachusetts created a 129-page police reform law that proponents hoped would bring significant changes to law enforcement oversight and rules, and make a real change for victims of police misconduct. Unfortunately, laws can’t exist only on paper. Civil rights laws in particular take education, action and sustained effort to have a meaningful impact.
The Police Reform Bill calls for a Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Commission to certify police officers statewide, a review of the civil service system, and attention to use of force policies, including the use of chokeholds. These significant items are some of the few that survived the rigorous negotiations at the State House, but key items, including changes to qualified immunity, were left out. Even once the law was implemented, several key deadlines were missed.
Police reform will remain no more than mere words on a page without deliberate implementation and oversight. Without those measures, these reforms will never change the lived experiences of communities of color in the commonwealth.
Police reform will remain no more than mere words on a page without deliberate implementation and oversight.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see policies designed to ensure law enforcement accountability become empty promises. The Massachusetts State Police (MSP) and its new Office of Professional Integrity and Accountability, for example, have a process for resolving civilian complaints — and in the wave of recent police reforms, it has received more resources and greater oversight from the Office of the Attorney General. Yet complaints of MSP racial profiling continue to languish. Since MSP lacks transparency, we don't know how many complaints they've received. But Lawyers for Civil Rights represents two young Black men whose complaints haven't been resolved in the past year:
Thirty-four-year-old Isaac Jenkins, a Black man and former employee of the Boston Celtics, filed a civilian complaint with the Massachusetts State Police one year ago, after being racially profiled, stopped and improperly held for walking his dog without a leash near the UMass campus. A year later, the complaint is still pending and unresolved.
Also last summer, Adrian Williams, a Black college athlete, was on his way home from a family gathering when he was racially profiled, improperly stopped and searched and injured, left with cuts and significant bruising. He was told that he could not possibly afford the BMW that he was driving, with the implication that he must be involved in illegal activity. He, too, filed a civilian complaint with the MSP that has been pending for the past year without a resolution.
Why file a complaint if it's ultimately meaningless?
These examples are the tip of the iceberg. Many other complaints with merit remain in limbo. All these complaints warrant expeditious resolution. Unfortunately, MSP is not unique in its snail-paced systems of accountability and oversight. A recent review of the Boston Police Department (BPD) civilian complaint system showed that complaints to the department's Bureau of Professional Standards also go unresolved and unenforced. Civilian complaints are sustained only 11% of the time. Use-of-force complaints are sustained only 3% of the time, and the majority of cases take years to resolve. The delays produce a tremendous chilling effect. Why file a complaint if it's ultimately meaningless? These problems exacerbate the tension between law enforcement and communities of color.
Black people endure daily indignities from law enforcement due to over-policing of communities of color. They are three times more likely to suffer fatal encounters at the hands of the police, according to a recent study conducted by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Unenforced laws and policies do nothing to rein in the problem of police misconduct and arguably, they make the situation worse.
Even the system for civilian victims to file a complaint and start an investigation of such conduct fails to offer real-time and effective accountability. Moreover, people like Isaac and Adrian are revictimized by the failed internal affairs systems, where victim interviews include interrogations of one’s motives for coming forward — treating the victim as a suspect.
Many people contacted their legislators to urge passage of police reform. We need that same urgency to insist that deadlines in the law are now met and that the promised reforms now come to fruition. MSP and BPD -- and any local police departments engaged in similar foot-dragging -- should have their budgets withheld until they can show concretely that they are implementing police reform.
Laws alone are meaningless if they fail to deliver justice.