A far-reaching proposal to enhance oversight of police officers and ban the use of certain types of force hit a bump on Thursday when Senate Republicans blocked a vote on the reform bill, delaying action on an issue that has become a priority for Democratic leaders and Gov. Charlie Baker.
The proposed bill would create an independent oversight and investigatory body to hold police accountable, and create a system to certify law enforcement officers at all levels of government, with clear guidelines on the use of force by police. Law enforcement officers would also be newly required to intervene if they witness police misconduct, and submit to racism training.
Senators were unable to make much progress on the 73-page bill, which was pieced together in recent weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing outrage over police violence and racism. Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, complained that the bill (S 2800), unveiled on Monday, had not been the subject of a public hearing and senators had not been given sufficient time to review the legislation or the proposed amendments.
Meeting mostly in private huddles for more than six hours, senators barely touched the 145 amendments calling for changes to the bill. Senate Democrats will try to pass the bill again on Friday, but the delay is notable in part because branch leaders hope to agree on a bill by July 31, and the House has not yet unveiled its bill.
"We're going to take another crack at the bill and hopefully there's a lot more consensus and we can get it done," said Fattman, who made the motion to delay action and suggested the bill is too expansive. "This is really important for a lot of people. Important things take time. This was sort of rushed and done hastily."
He later added, "People from all walks of life want to see this get done, including myself."
Fattman said the late-afternoon recess helped avoid a late-night session, which he advised against because he said it would not be transparent. He noted the overnight break will ensure the debate resumes Friday morning.
Defending the work of police, Fattman said it was "unfair to say" that Massachusetts law enforcement officers don't rise to a level of excellence and said "the egregious sins of other law enforcement in other parts of our country should not be their burden to bear."
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said he was disappointed by the delay, and said the bill was put together over months by a "bipartisan working group" and following meetings with people and interest groups with a stake in the bill's outcome.
"This body debates complicated, controversial matters all the time," he said, noting the omnibus bill is made up of individual bills that have had public hearings. "That's what we are elected to do."
Rodrigues also seemed to hold out the possibility of weekend sessions if the Republicans further delay action on the bill, noting he was looking ahead to deliberations on Friday "or the next day or the next day."
The bill was developed after weeks of public demonstrations and national cries for political leaders to confront systemic racism after the killing of Floyd and other people of color by police.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, said Thursday that she felt a mix of grief for the families of those killed by police violence and pride in the legislation she had helped write.
As the only Senate member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, Chang-Diaz read off a list of victims of police and racial violence, and credited the "righteous anger" of protesters who marched in the streets in defiance of a public health pandemic to confront systemic racism.
Th protests helped create the momentum needed to ensure that police reform bills weren't shuffled aside for further study as they have been for years, she said, noting years of advocacy for reforms by Rep. Russell Holmes and former Rep. Byron Rushing, both of Boston.
Instead, she said the Senate was taking up a bill that rejects "the culture of violent force and impunity that has persisted unchecked in too many areas of law enforcement." The bill emphasizes deescalation tactics and care for those served by police, a shift toward treating people with dignity rather than aggression, she said.
The bill would also impose a temporary ban on facial recognition technology, codify the prohibition on racial profiling in law enforcement, eliminate a requirement that police officers be present in schools, and expand access to expungement for young adult offenses.
Ahead of Thursday's debate, Rep. Carlos Gonzalez of Springfield wrote to the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate and Gov. Baker asking them not to lose sight of the core principles they all agreed to during weeks of talks following Floyd's death.
Gonzalez, who chairs the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, acknowledged the pressure to use the policing reform bill as a vehicle to jump-start many long-stalled reforms, but cautioned against doing so.
With three weeks until the end of the formal legislative sessions, Democrats face pressure to get a bill to Gov. Baker's desk soon. Baker has filed his own bill to create a system for licensing police that would allow an independent commission to investigate and decertify an officer who violates the state's codes of conduct.
The governor's bill was referred to the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo has also signaled his intention to put a bill on the floor of the House for a vote, but after agreeing with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on a framework for the bill, the legislation has not yet surfaced.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, who has worked on bills reforming the CORI system and criminal sentencing, called the policing bill a "significant step" with the potential to create positive cultural change.
Creem, however, said that even if the bill becomes law the Senate must continue to work on environmental justice, health care, housing and education to address the inequities she said are embedded in society.
Earlier in the week, Lawrence Calderone, of the Boston Police Patrolman's Association, and John Nelson, from the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, also criticized Senate leaders for pushing forward with a broad array of policy proposals that haven't had a public hearing.
The two men co-chair the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, which was formed to speak on behalf of police unions and other state law enforcement organizations on legislation and policy.
"Unfortunately, rather than focusing on thoughtfully and substantively improving police standards and training, the Senate hastily introduced unvetted legislation without a public hearing or open testimony," Calderone and Nelson said in a statement. "(The bill) seems more focused on making a political statement than on making sound, well reasoned and forward-thinking public policy."