Long having made criminal justice reform central to my work as your Representative, I am deeply engaged in a variety of discussions about what reforms we will undertake here in Massachusetts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the other many abuses of police power. Based on several key conversations in which I have participated, it is likely that the House will take significant action. Many ideas are circulating and receiving intense focus.
My colleagues in the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus have put out a 10-Point Plan to Address Police Violence and Advance Racial Justice, you can read it on their website, www.mablacklatinocaucus.com. I support and will work to advance the four points of the plan that address changes needed on the state level.
The Black and Latino Caucus also advanced a more immediate plan that includes: 1) the creation of an independent Office of Police Standards and Professional Conduct to ensure minimum statewide policies and procedures for all law enforcement (including procedures on the use of force); 2) the immediate abolishment of the use of the chokehold by law enforcement; 3) the establishment of an affirmative obligation for all law enforcement officers to intervene in a situation where a fellow officer improperly/illegally uses force; and 4) establish a special legislative commission to study and examine the civil service law and recommend changes to ensure more opportunity for minority recruitment.
In addition, I filed two bills as the co-lead sponsor with Representative Frank Moran, the senior-most member of the Black and Latino Caucus in the House. One addresses discriminatory police calls and the other covers the right to record police activity in a public space, as outlined below.
Improper and Discriminatory Police Calls
Far too often, people of color who are doing nothing wrong are reported to the police as “suspicious.” The police arrive only to find no illegal activity, but the psychological damage to the falsely accused is never addressed and the interaction can sometimes lead to unnecessary confrontation with the police and even violence. There is currently no law that protects people from bias-based and unreasonable calls to the police. To protect our citizens from the harm of these discriminatory and racially motivated calls to police, I filed An Act relative to improper and discriminatory police reporting.
This legislation increases accountability for law enforcement and Massachusetts citizens who discriminate against people of color. This bill seeks to bring about change in how people of color are treated in our communities. Calls to the police based on racism or unconscious bias must be addressed.
This bill gives individuals or groups a civil right of action against someone who calls the police on them primarily based on their race or other membership of a protected class if the caller has no reason to believe there was a crime, criminal conduct, or imminent threat of a crime happening. In a situation in which someone has been discriminated against in this manner, they may bring an action in court against the caller. Victims of these discriminatory police calls will be entitled to relief in court.
The Right to Record Law Enforcement
Recording police officers as they perform their official duties in public has become a developing First Amendment issue around the country and here in Massachusetts. Many cases have arisen where citizens face a number of criminal charges after recording a traffic stop, arrest, or other police interactions. Much of what white society has learned about police misconduct over these last years is because of images recorded by citizen bystanders. These videos and recordings are vital to documenting the truth, are important pieces of evidence, and the right to create them must be protected and preserved. I believe that there must be a statute on the books in Massachusetts that clearly codifies the right of the public to record police officers performing their duties in public. That is why I filed An Act relative to the right to record law enforcement.
Under this bill, the law would explicitly state that citizens have the right to record activities of law enforcement officials while such officials are performing public business in a public space. While there is some favorable case law on this topic in Massachusetts, such judge-made law is always subject to change and Representative Moran and I believe it is a right that should be codified.
Currently, police officers are allowed to use qualified immunity to avoid liability for violating the constitutional rights of citizens. This legislation would bar law enforcement officials from using the defense of qualified immunity if the officer interfered with, prevented, used force against, or arrested a person for lawfully recording police in public. Of course, those making a recording must do so in a way that does not interfere with a law enforcement officer’s ability to perform his/her duties.
In addition to providing for the right to record, this legislation provides an avenue for relief if a person making a recording is harmed, or interfered with by a law enforcement official. If this law is enacted, these protections would help to ensure civil liberties are not infringed upon and law enforcement is held accountable. Further, the bill clarifies that the right to record law enforcement does not violate existing wiretapping laws, which apply to the secret recording of police.