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Our view: Police reform on the fly

Gov. Charlie Baker gets 10 days to absorb the police reform bill passed by the state House and Senate on Tuesday. He must decide whether to sign and make it law, send it back with changes for lawmakers to consider, or veto it entirely.

Baker gets exactly nine more days with the 129-page bill than most rank-and-file lawmakers had before casting their votes. How ironic that a law intended to create transparency and public trust in such an essential function of government as policing was shunted through the Legislature with so little time for members to weigh the merits.

Whatever one thinks of the bill, fashioned over the past four months under the cloak of secrecy in conference committee, the rush job at the end is disappointing. Lawmakers had 24 hours to review the committee’s work and make a judgement, leaving little time to reflect, research its details or debate. The expedited process cut out spectators –lobbyists, advocates and the public –probably by design. The bill is polarizing to be sure, with police unions among its harshest critics. Twenty-four hours is not much time to marshal the opposition.

More time was warranted, especially because of the bill’s sweeping nature. Packed into its pages are plans for a state panel to certify police officers at the state and local level every three years, much as teachers and other professionals are regulated. Officers found to have committed misconduct by a state division of police standards could be decertified by the panel, then lose the qualified immunity protecting them from civil lawsuits for their actions on the job. The bill bans the use of chokeholds in all cases, even if officers themselves are in danger. It restricts the use of facial recognition software by police.

All are important topics for the Legislature to consider, but not all got an especially thorough vetting. The House and Senate passed versions of the police reform bill back in July —Baker himself proposed reforms, including a commission for police certification, in June —but the details were left to a six-member committee that, like all such Beacon Hill committees, negotiates in secret. It reported its recommendation on Monday. Sen. Bruce Tarr and other Republicans in the House and Senate, who voted uniformly against the bill on Tuesday, complained about the narrow timeline to examine the finished product. That particular objection was shared by some Democrats, too, including state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, who tweeted at Senate President Karen Spilka on Tuesday: “Oh hey good morning! Yes, thank you (House Speaker Robert DeLeo) and (Spilka) for the less than 24 hours you gave your members to review this 129 page bill. #Teamwork. The Senate and House are becoming strikingly and disturbingly similar these days in terms of process…”

She and her colleagues are right to be upset. (DiZoglio was among a dozen senators to vote against the bill.) For the good that the police reform bill in final form may do, such weighty decisions require a far more deliberate, public treatment.

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