| Sarah Heinonen
WESTERN MASS. – Changes are coming to the way police departments across Massachusetts interact with their communities. On July 1, most provisions of the police reform law, officially titled “An Act relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” will be in effect.
Signed into law on Dec. 31, 2020, the law codifies a ban on the use of chokeholds, prohibits physical force until de-escalation tactics have been attempted and failed and the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, or the release of dogs during community demonstrations and protests unless de-escalation has been attempted. The law requires an officer to intervene when another officer is using excessive force and report it.
A nine-member civilian Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission will establish standards for law enforcement certification, which it can limit, condition, restrict, revoke or suspend. It also provides training for law enforcement on mental wellness and suicide prevention. It is the primary civil enforcement agency for violations.
Other commissions have also been created by the law, such as the nine-member commission on the status of African Americans that will make policy recommendations to ensure equitable treatment and policing of Black communities. Similarly, commissions were created to ensure equitable policing of Latinx communities, and people with disabilities. Yet another commission will examine issues which disproportionately have a negative impact on Black men and boys in the state. Each commission will release a yearly report on the previous year’s activities.
At the local level, police departments are getting ready to put the new provisions into action.
“The police reform law will be mandating changes to the ways municipal police departments operate in Massachusetts. These range from changes in use of force, hiring procedures, citizen complaint processing, training mandates, and police officer licensing,” said Capt. Edward Lennon of the Wilbraham Police Department.
East Longmeadow Police Chief Mark Williams told Reminder Publishing, “There are about 25 ‘Action Items’ identified by the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association that need to be dealt with relative to the new law, and most of these items have a compliance date of July 1, 2021. We’re in compliance with most of these items already, and have a plan to be fully compliant with all provisions by their specified due date.”
In Springfield, Public Information Officer Ryan Walsh said, “So far, we have had to expedite our annual in-service training schedule to ensure that our nearly 500 officers receive initial certification prior to the end of June. Once the POST Commission is formed, we anticipate some additional communication with the Commission, but our department is ready to implement any changes the state mandates.” He added, “Our staff instructors are also going through various Municipal Police Training Committee trainings so they are certified and ready to implement anything the state mandates.”
Some action items that have become regulations with this law have been in practice in various departments, but the law standardizes the use of these practices.
“There are various aspects of the reform bill that address key areas such as de-escalation, bias, chokeholds and the duty to intervene. The Springfield Police Department has been a leader in these trainings for years. We believe we were the first department in Massachusetts to train officers in a full course in de-escalation. In addition to 52 percent of our officers being minorities, we have trained our officers in implicit bias instruction. The Springfield Police Department does not and has not taught chokeholds,” said Walsh.
On the topic of officer intervention, he added, “We were the second police department in the country to use EPIC (Ethical Policing is Courageous) Training. This trains officers to intervene at the earliest sign of their partner or another officer having even a bad day.”
Capt. Carl Mazzaferro of the Longmeadow Police Department echoed those sentiments. “While all departments have been mandated to implement change, the Longmeadow Police Department is the first Accredited Agency in Hampden County, as such; many of our policies and practices already met or exceeded the standards.”
As with any major shift in how municipal departments are run, the reforms will cost money. This has led to some concern in towns already experiencing tight budgets caused by the post-pandemic economy.
“Many of these [mandates] involve extensive administrative processes that will either divert current resources or require additional means to meet the mandates,” said Lennon.
Williams identified another way police finances will be impacted. “Departments that rely on part-time police officers are feeling a more significant impact since the part-time officers’ training and certifications are being phased out and forcing them to get increased training to make them closer to the equivalent of a full-time officer’s academy training.”
Williams continued, “As well intentioned, logical, and sensible this particular change is in my opinion, this will still impact a number of cities and towns economically in a significant way as they work to maintain sufficient police coverage with fewer officers eligible to provide it.”
With all of this in mind, Williams said that the changes have been a long time coming.
“The establishment of a POST Commission has been talked about for at least the last five years, and this is something that I have professionally wanted and openly supported. I don’t agree entirely with every piece of this reform bill, but then again if it didn’t make us all a little uncomfortable then I guess it couldn’t be called a reform bill,” Williams considered.
“It’s important for police in a democratic and free society to be professional and accountable, and it’s also important for the police to maintain credibility in the community, for our authority comes from the people we serve,” Williams said. He added, “I have a lot of respect and admiration for the men and women who go to work in our police departments every day and continue to protect us all. It is a pleasure to be counted among them and be part of their team.”