Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Black and Latino caucus members discuss police reform legislation

With police practices facing scrutiny across the U.S., Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus members are poised to push for a package of criminal justice system reform legislation aimed at promoting greater transparency and accountability in the state’s law enforcement agencies.

Among the legislation lawmakers discussed at an information session last week were bills that would require police departments to collect and share data on motor vehicular and pedestrian stops, a bill that would require police to issue a receipt with their name and the reason for pedestrian stops and a bill that would create a full-time inspector general to review allegations of police misconduct.

While the meeting was sponsored by the Black and Latino Caucus, many white legislators and staff were among the more than 70 people who packed into the Members Lounge, indicating increased interest in the legislation, a version of which state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz first filed four years ago.

“Attendance was phenomenal,” Chang-Diaz said. “I think there’s a fair amount of support, not only from Caucus members. It’s not to say it will be an easy lift. The traffic bill has been around for several years. But these issues are top of mind for the general public.”

The police killings of unarmed, black civilians in recent months and the Back Lives Matter movement that those incidents spawned have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, with demonstrations in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Lexington and other Massachusetts communities.

“I don’t think there’s a person in the United States who does not carry around bias,” Chang-Diaz said. “That extends to the police. And the police have a lot of power and responsibility. Given the extensive power and responsibility that officers of the law are charged with, we have to make sure policing is done without bias.”

The heart of the legislation are the requirements that police collect and report data on the race of drivers and pedestrians they stop and the reasons for their stops, said ACLU Massachusetts Attorney Carlton Williams, who attended the meeting last week.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” he commented. “We need to be able to measure the effectiveness of policing jurisdiction-to-jurisdiction and see what’s working and what’s not working. It’s a way to build accountability into the system.”

In 2001, police departments across the state began collecting and sharing data on traffic stops and race, after Caucus members pushed through a bill requiring them to do so for a period of two years. In 2004, the state released the data, showing blacks, Latinos and Asians were stopped at a rate higher than their percentage in the population by 247 of the Commonwealth’s police departments, including the State Police.

“That clearly bought into light the need for more data collection,” Chang-Diaz said of the 2004 report.

Whether or not those departments have changed their policing practices to reduce bias in traffic stops remains an open question. State officials have not collected new data.

While Boston police have released data on pedestrian stops from four years ago, the department has not released data since then (Boston Police have not yet responded to a Banner request sent in Oct. for data from 2011-2013).

In addition to data collection, legislators discussed requiring police to wear body-worn cameras as well as better police oversight, including civilian review boards, a special prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office and a proposal for a full-time inspector general, an idea advanced by Worcester Democrat Mary Keefe.

Rep. Byron Rushing said the legislators will likely file a police reform bill or set of bills by the Jan. 16 filing deadline.

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