POLICE REFORM: State Rep. Dave Robertson Will NOT Support Eliminating Qualified Immunity For Police Officers

Below is a press release from State Representative Dave Robertson’s Office:

TEWKSBURY, MA — This week marked the release of the third police reform proposal in Massachusetts since the death of George Floyd. First, before analyzing the major proposals offered, I would like to thank everyone who wrote to my office with your thoughts and opinions on the matter, your positive and negative experiences with law enforcement, and your beliefs on how Massachusetts leads the way on this issue. Now that all major proposals from the House, Senate, and Governor Baker have emerged, the time has arrived to engage with these ideas and broaden their discussion publically. I would especially like to thank our officers who took the time openly and candidly discussed their current practices, and suggested real and practical ways to better policing throughout the state from their time serving our community.

Before the legislative proposals began to emerge, weeks ago, I was able to speak with our Chiefs of Police on how ourpolice departments are able to continue to deliver law enforcement within our communities without issues nor incidents. The answer is a simple one: our education and self-imposed high standards. This is why the Commonwealth, at large, functions as the prime example of community policing. Both Tewksbury and Wilmington have, for years, barred the use of any chokeholds, we require officers to undergo Crisis Intervention Training, Autism Awareness and Mental Health courses, and our departments re-train officers on a semi-annual basis, as needed. In both towns, follow-up social workers pair the appropriate resources with mental, social, or addiction issues to which officers have responded. This ensures that our police officers are able to focus their duties more relevantly and is always works toward those suffering from mental or emotional avoiding unnecessary incarcerations and promoting their movement into treatment. Chief Begonis, formerly of the Wilmington Police Department, was one of the first Chief’s to showcase the effectiveness of an embedded social worker in his department. Chief Sheehan did so as well and it played a large part in helping overhaul the Commonwealth’s drug courts intervention programs. Thankfully, both of our current Chiefs carry-on this legacy of practical and thoughtful crime prevention via the actions of “early intervention”.

In a time where we hear cries to “defund the police” what both the House and Senate proposals of these bills need to do is to allocate money to enhance and expand training for all departments throughout the Commonwealth; in effect to “refund the police”. As I said above, both Tewksbury and Wilmington were early adopters of sensible and sensitive education-based training programs. Don’t all cities and towns in Massachusetts deserve the same? Our Chiefs and patrolmen have been supportive of a number of new initiatives, such as requiring an officer to actively intervene when a fellow officer was mistreating a suspect, allowing independent investigations when a death occurs in police hands, and providing detailed data on any use-of-force. In the words of one officer who wrote to my office, “We do these things anyways to find out how we can improve”. Other universally supported ideas included the establishment of uniformed training standards and the creation of a board to overhaul these standards every few years. I will continue to fight for the implementation of these statewide standards.

However, there are aspects of these bills I take issue with, elements that I feel will weaken our police in dangerous ways. I do not support the removal of qualified immunity. We cannot become a domain for predatory lawyers who seek to undermine our justice system for their personal gain. If a police officer commits a crime while wearing the badge, then he or she is to be prosecuted like any other citizen. That said, what do our streets and courts look like when every arrest can be deemed an assault and every arresting officer a defendant? I also have great concern with eliminating collective bargaining. As a strong pro-labor official I believe this would undermine the ability for a department to universally – and voluntarily — implement more stringent standards. In the event of an economic downturn, such as now, hiring and retaining officers of high caliber becomes increasingly more difficult. Chiefs should not have to be burdened with negotiating on a case-by-case basis nor be forced to hire poorly trained individuals to save cash. This would quickly and drastically degrade the quality of our policing, through high turnover and other departmental issues. If we want our officers to be held to high standards they need to be paid as such, as we have seen this correlation proven true time and time again within our schools and our hospitals.

In addition to these two major red flags, there are a number of smaller items that I believe work contrarily to the bills intentions. The removal of crowd-control tools and less-than-lethal weapons, such as bean-bag or rubber rounds, increases the reliance on an officer’s sidearm. Only a few years ago, Wilmington officers faced a man undergoing mental health issues. He was armed with a knife and attacked an officer in a very public place. Thankfully, the training and standards of our departments resulted in a successful and non-lethal apprehension. However, had the legislation banned the use of rubber rounds, officers would have one less tool on the table to defuse the situation – and would have had to rely on their sidearms, with potentially deadly results. Another legislative proposal opened up a “duty to intervene” to the general public, creating a free-for-all situation that would potentially allow a civilian to intervene in an on-going arrest if they believed officers were acting inappropriately. How a civilian was to know if the officers were apprehending a violent criminal or otherwise, I do not know, but our streets should not become a court of public opinion where untrained bystanders are judge, jury, and possibly executioner of an officer engaged in his or her sworn duty. Many legislative proposals already address this in a much safer manner by reaffirming the public’s right to record police interactions in the state, thereby giving a way to provide third party oversight an impartial view on what occurred without risking officers, suspects, or public lives.

I was hoping for a bill “refunding the police” but we see that sentiment has been paired with a number of objectionable proposals embedded in the bills released this past week. Our departments and officers in our community have agreed with, and even actively supported, a vast majority of public demands for police reform such as encouraging hiring from within the community, eliminating chokeholds, having third party oversight on deaths in police custody, and reporting data to refine and train officers in new approaches and techniques. However, as long as these bills seek to couple these universally agreed upon and positive reforms with undercutting officers livelihoods and budgets through unfunded mandates, I do not believe such legislation will achieve the goals claimed.

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