PROVINCETOWN — Massachusetts’s new police reform bill will change many aspects of policing, including training and certification, with new use-of-force rules, a duty to intervene and stop other officers from using unreasonable force, and a decertification process to expel problem officers from the profession.
The bill was passed in response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans by police nationwide.
For the small police depts. of the Outer Cape, one significant change concerns oversight. At present, hardly any civilians are “in the loop” on police discipline. In fact, in most cases, the only civilian who knows about a disciplinary situation is the town manager. Select boards are typically not briefed on “personnel matters.”
“The chain of command is: the select board sets policy, the town manager implements it, the town manager is in charge of department heads,” said Bobby Anthony, who was Provincetown’s police chief from 1992 to 2002 and has been on the town’s select board since 2014.
If a specific officer’s conduct were to be questioned, it likely would be classed as a personnel matter and, therefore, would never come before the select board. “We set policy, but we do not interfere” in personnel, said Anthony. “It’s not our purview.”
Some town charters give the select board a stronger role, said Charles Sumner, Provincetown’s interim town manager, who served for decades as Brewster’s town administrator. “There are towns where the officer could appeal a decision to the select board,” Sumner said, “and that hearing could be in open or in executive session.”
There are towns in which a chief might recommend a punishment and the select board gets to vote on it. More typical, though, is that “the officer’s personnel file is going to be protected and confidential, they’re going to accept the punishment the chief decides, and no one in the public is going to know,” said Sumner.
Personnel are protected by these rules for good reasons, said state Rep. Sarah Peake, who served on Provincetown’s select board. But having an officer’s entire file be confidential was an obvious problem.
“An officer could get disciplined and released from employment, go to a different part of the state, and get hired without the new community knowing anything about their history,” said Peake. “That is what has to stop.”
The police reform bill makes major changes to the oversight of discipline and what the public can know about it.
A core feature of the bill is the formation of a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) commission. The POST will have a multitude of new powers, including receiving civilian complaints, conducting its own investigations, and decertifying officers, which would prevent them from working for any law enforcement agency in the state.
Most disciplinary activity would still take place within local departments, but police chiefs will be obligated to report complaints of misconduct to the POST, and to report on the progress and outcome of their disciplinary investigations as well. The POST will have a public database of all officers, including their disciplinary records. It will also have an internal database of all misconduct complaints, no matter their outcome, in order to look for patterns that might indicate a problem.
And, in a key departure from other states, the new POST will be majority civilian.
“There is a proud tradition in this country of the civilian oversight of the use of force,” said state Sen. Julian Cyr. “Our military is structured that way. Oversight of policing should be as well. That’s why this bill is a really big deal.
“The board that determines whether or not an officer is not just disciplined but decertified is going to be a nine-member board, six of whom are civilians,” Cyr added. “No state has a civilian-controlled board. Massachusetts is now the first.”
The POST commission is appointed by the governor and the state’s attorney general, and will include one police chief, two police officers, a retired judge, a social worker, a civil rights lawyer, and three other civilians.
Locally, officer discipline will still mostly be handled between police chiefs and town managers, but there will be other civilians in the loop now, and the public will know of any affirmative results.
Communication between police and public shouldn’t be confined to matters of discipline, said Anthony.
“Back in 1992, we had a community policing committee,” he said. “It consisted of the chief, the town government, and members of the community — activists and all kinds of people. It was for a specific issue — the amount of hate crimes we had going on in those years, anti-gay hate crimes — but we used to meet once a week in the Judge Welsh room in town hall. The public was invited to all those meetings. And we brought the hate crimes down to zero.
“Community policing — it’s a philosophy that government, the police, and the community work together to take care of issues, good or bad, whatever they are,” Anthony continued. “Communication is the most important part of community policing. It’s open communication all around that triangle. I don’t think anything can’t be solved if we talk about it.”
“I believe this [legislation] is going to be a win-win for every good and honorable police officer in Massachusetts,” said Peake. “It’s good for the public, and for the people who honorably serve, wearing that blue uniform. That’s why I proudly voted for this legislation.”
“I want to be clear that we have so much work left to do on racial justice and police reform,” said Cyr, who also voted for the bill. “This new law is just a start. It relies on policing expertise, while providing civilian accountability over policing. While it isn’t perfect, I’m hopeful.”