BOSTON — Police officers may quit their jobs in Massachusetts rather than face a controversial set of policing reforms, according to a law enforcement advocate and a former state trooper now serving on Beacon Hill.
Lawmakers approved a raft of legislation last week that will create a new nine-member, largely civilian Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission in charge of licensing state and local officers. The commission also will have the power to investigate claims of wrongdoing and could strip officers of their certification.
Law enforcement groups say they've supported licensing for officers and other reforms, but they've criticized the legislation as loaded up with a "wish list" of controversial changes that, if implemented, will compromise the work of police and send them looking for employment elsewhere.
"We're already seeing resignations and retirements," said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Police Chiefs, which opposed many provisions of the bill. "If this bill is enacted, I'm concerned we'll see a lot of officers say, 'You know what, it's time to move on,' and leave the state."
Leahy said his association supported police certification, but lawmakers chose to pack the oversight panel with "people who know nothing about the profession."
"We have about 30 professional boards in the state, from doctors to lawyers, and every one of them is comprised of a majority of practitioners," he said.
Another concern is the reform bill's ban on the use of chokeholds to subdue suspects, even in situations where an officer's life may be in jeopardy. Another provision strips the legal immunity of officers whom the commission has decertified for wrongdoing, leaving them open to lawsuits from the public.
The proposal overhauling the state's policing policies comes more than six months after nationwide demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Minneapolis police officers.
Leahey points out that Massachusetts had the one of the lowest numbers of fatal police shootings per capita in the country.
"We have taken great pride in the fact that we have, what we believe, is an excellent track record," he said. "This oppressive oversight bill is apparently what we get as reward for doing good work."
The bill is awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, who filed his own police reform proposal earlier this year.
Baker hasn't hinted at what he'll do with the legislation, which was hammered out by a six-member panel in secretive meetings and includes controversial changes that weren't in the governor's plan. Baker could sign the bill, veto it, or send it back to lawmakers with suggested changes.
The governor has some leverage over the process, thanks to dozens of Democratic lawmakers who jumped ranks and joined Republicans in voting against the bill. It passed the state House of Representatives by a narrow, 91-67 margin, which isn't enough to override a veto.
Police unions, such as the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, which represents about 4,300 officers, are urging Baker to veto the bill and restart discussions about reform in the next legislative session.
Rep. Timothy Whelan, R-Brewster, a former state police sergeant, echoed concerns about an exodus of police in remarks on the House floor last week.
Whelan was calling on fellow lawmakers to reject the measure.
"We are going to be jeopardizing the health and safety of law officers that stay on the job," he said. "We’re going to be a disincentive to getting the kind of people in the profession that we want, and we’re going to be endangering the health and safety of citizens of the commonwealth."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.