Mass. Sen. William N. Brownsberger ’78 — a key player in the passage of the state’s recent police reform bill — spoke virtually to the Harvard Kennedy School as part of its Reimagining Community Safety Speaker Series on Wednesday.
Brownsberger is the State Senator for the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District, representing Belmont, Watertown, and parts of Allston, Brighton, Back Bay, and Fenway.
His work focuses on criminal justice issues, and he previously held positions in Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions, the Kennedy School’s Program on Drugs and Crime, and Harvard’s Interdisciplinary Working Group on Drugs and Addictions.
Gov. Charles D. Baker ’79 signed the bill, entitled “An Act Relative to Justice, Equity, and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” into law on Dec. 31.
“There is a lot of thought given to use of force and the existing municipal police training council had a body of training on what circumstances police could use what types of force,” Brownsberger said. “Most of them are ultimately founded on case law. But there have been no statutory constructs. And so we moved the needle in some significant ways here.”
Brownsberger said the legislation emphasizes de-escalation, and bans the use of chokeholds — the technique a Minneapolis police officer used in the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
“There’s a question about what is a chokehold — that is a complicated question. But we definitely said, ‘You can’t do what you did to George Floyd,’” he said. “Most police officers would say they’d never use that kind of technique, even for one minute, never mind eight minutes, which was murder.”
Brownsberger said another important part of the law places restrictions on police officers shooting individuals in the back.
“I think that one of the most significant changes is this idea that you can’t shoot somebody in the back because they’re running away. Escape is not a reason to shoot somebody unless they’re about to hurt somebody else,” he said.
The legislation also bans no-knock warrants unless issued by a judge and deemed necessary for safety purposes. No-knock warrants allow police to enter buildings without warning, and have been at issue since Louisville police officers with a no-knock warrant killed Breonna Taylor in March 2020.
The legislation also created a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which Brownsberger described as “an agency that actually has the authority to say whether somebody is good enough to be a police officer.”
The commission will conduct initial background checks on police officers and continue to monitor officers and respond to complaints about police conduct. It will be composed of three police officers and six civilians who have never been in law enforcement. Three of the six civilians will be appointed by organizations — namely the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Massachusetts Bar Association Civil Rights and Social Justice Section.
“This is a very strong, independent agency, with authority over all aspects of policing. The training function — and this is a compromise with the governor — is preserved within the executive branch,” he said. “But the standards are subject to joint approval with this civilian post.”
The legislation gives the commission the ultimate say in the removal of police officers from the force.
“If this commission finds that you should not be a police officer, you’re not a police officer, no matter what any of those other agencies think,” he said. “No matter what your hiring authority thinks, no matter what your civil service board thinks, no matter what your arbitrator thinks — you’re not a police officer.”
—Staff writer Isabel G. Skomro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @isabelskomro.