We find ourselves at the crossroads of conversations around race, justice and police reform occurring against the backdrop of unspeakable tragedies such as the murder of George Floyd. I know the importance of meeting this moment with decisiveness to effect true systemic change. We must listen and validate the voices of people of color and those who have been marginalized for far too long. I can’t imagine and don’t pretend to know their lived experiences. They must be heard to begin healing the division between police and all communities. It is important to also acknowledge the vast majority of police officers in the challenging work they do while ensuring those who tarnish the badge are held accountable and punished accordingly.
I was proud to work closely with the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on House Bill 4860. Meeting people where they are, as legislators, means we must listen to all people, no matter their station in life, their zip code or their opinion.
Some have criticized calls for reform as unnecessary because many of these fatal police/citizen encounters happened far away. This reasoning is wrong and diminishes the very real feelings of many in communities of color here in Massachusetts. It is human nature to look at any change though your own lens and ask “how does it affect me?” It is the duty of legislators to hear all voices and while taking into account individual concern, decisions and votes must be based on the common good.
To that point elected officials should be transparent and then take any credit or criticism that comes their way, as long as both are based in fact.
Unfortunately, the positive reforms in H 4860 have been overshadowed by some who have hijacked the narrative with their analysis which is plainly false and recklessly incorrect. For example, the portion on qualified immunity has become a major point of contention. I find that most people never actually even heard the term and even more honestly admit they are not sure what it actually does. Qualified immunity is legally defined as “the protection for all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Law enforcement officers are entitled to qualified immunity when their actions do not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.” Case in point, a law enforcement officer recently posted on social media that without the immunity, an officer who cracks a rib doing CPR can be sued. This type of rhetoric is not just wrong, it is dangerous and reckless.
The House bill leaves qualified immunity intact, unless that officer has done something so egregious that they are terminated and decertified as an officer. I find it indefensible that some would advocate continuing this immunity for those who knowingly or purposely violate the law. This bill further appoints a commission to deeply study the issue and report back with recommendations. My hope is that all who are affected by this legal doctrine have an opportunity to be heard.
I also find it unfortunate that the real reform in the bill specific to training requirements , standards for hiring, use of force, professional certification and so much more have been lost among the polarization we see that permeates society today.
For some, police reform has become a zero sum equation where you are either with the police or with those looking for positive systemic change. We can only realize true change when all voices are heard and respected in equal measure. A just society depends on a relationship of trust between law enforcement and the citizens they serve and protect.
Change is hard. The work will be difficult. This is important. There is no time to waste.
Paul Tucker is the state representative for Salem and the former chief of the Salem Police Department.