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How The George Floyd Protests Sparked Debate About — And Among — Law Enforcement In Mass.02:59
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Boston Police emerge from the cloud of tear gas in the Boston Common to clear out protesters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Police emerge from the cloud of tear gas in the Boston Common to clear out protesters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Calls for reforms amid the protests over the death of George Floyd have sparked debate — and some rifts — in the Massachusetts law enforcement community, from police officers to the state attorney general to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Two police unions are criticizing Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins for her statements about the protests over racism and police brutality.

The Boston Police Patrolmen's Association wrote to Rollins after she recently tweeted "we are being murdered by police"  and "No more words. Demand action."

The union said her comments incited violence against Boston police officers, saying protestors took "action" by attacking police officers after a massive demonstration Sunday. Eight officers were hurt.

"While you quickly and cavalierly label all police officers murderers, the fact is that BPD officers responded to violent attacks against them with courage and restraint," the union wrote in a letter to Rollins. "Instead of slandering our officers as murderers, you should be highlighting their professionalism and dedication to our city."

Rollins says she wasn't talking about all police officers, but she maintains that reforms are needed to rein in those officers who abuse their power.

“I state unequivocally, my discontent is not with the overwhelming majority of police officers who serve our communities with dignity and pride, who are culturally competent and bring honor to the badge they wear," Rollins said in a statement released Tuesday night. "No, my outrage is laser focused on the rogue few who believe that they can kill with impunity."

During a press conference Wednesday, Rollins said she is supporting a congressional resolution to end what's known as qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity shields police from being sued in some cases when they're accused of using excessive force.

"We're talking about the percentage of law enforcement that believes that they can kill with impunity, and they have been proven right," Rollins said. "For too long, district attorneys — people who hold my position and are elected — have turned away and ignored when rogue members of law enforcement have engaged in criminal acts that have resulted in broken bones, broken spirits and death."

The association did not respond to requests for comment.

Another union representing police officers is accusing Rollins of making comments that are divisive and dangerous. The Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a union representing more than 4,000 officers and dispatchers in 160 Massachusetts communities, sent Rollins a letter noting that four Minneapolis police officers have been charged in George Floyd's death, and that bad officers are held accountable.

"We've seen officers get arrested for doing bad things and some have gone to jail, some haven't," said coalition president and Waltham patrolman Scott Hovsepian. "Insinuating our police are going around shooting people and not having to worry about consequences that's such a false statement. Those are the kinds of statements that rile people up."

Hovespian says his union is willing to talk about reforms.

"This must be a time not just of reflection but of action."

A letter signed by seven SJC justices

Rollins isn't the only law enforcement leader coming under fire for her comments about the protests.

The Republican Attorneys General Association slammed Massachusetts State Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, over her speech to local business leaders Tuesday where she said " Yes, America is burning but that's how forests grow."  During the speech, Healey said she doesn't condone the violence that has erupted during the protests, but she urged a national cultural change to deal with four centuries of racism and oppression in America.

But the Republican group accused Healey of "fanning the flames of emotion for political gain."

"Maura Healey's inflammatory rhetoric is part of the problem, not a solution. An AG is elected to uphold the rule of law and protect life and property, not to violate their oath and incite additional violence by inflaming emotions and condoning lawlessness," Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who chairs RAGA, said in a statement.

Seven justices of Massachusetts highest court weighed in a letter sent Wednesday to the judiciary and the Bar. The letter urged judges and lawyers to root out bias in the criminal justice system.

"...as members of the legal community, we need to reexamine why, too often, our criminal justice system fails to treat African-Americans the same as white Americans, and recommit ourselves to the systemic change needed to make equality under the law an enduring reality for all," the justices wrote in the letter. "This must be a time not just of reflection but of action."

The reforms under discussion include improved police training, tougher regulations on the use of force by officers and more scrutiny of spending on law enforcement.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey is sponsoring a resolution in Congress that would end qualified immunity for police officers. He said the Supreme Court has refused to hear cases involving the protection for police officers and a congressional resolution will help frame the debate about it. He said now is the time for reform.

"There's a whole new era opening up in the United States. We haven't seen anything like this in a couple of generations," Markey said. "We have an opportunity here because public opinion is behind us."

This segment aired on June 4, 2020.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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