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Massachusetts Passes Bill With Facial Recognition Rules

Gov. Charlie Baker’s office said he’d sign a massive police reform bill after the Massachusetts Senate made a series of concessions, including regulations allowing use of facial recognition technology in limited cases.

a crowd of people with one standing out
(TNS) — Masschusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s office said he’d sign a massive police reform bill after the Massachusetts Senate made a series of concessions, including regulations allowing use of facial recognition technology in limited cases.

Baker said through a spokeswoman he’d look forward to signing the bill after the Senate approved its own amendment that tweaked changes proposed by the Republican governor on Dec. 10. Thirty-one senators voted yes, while nine voted no.

“Today’s Senate proposal reflects the amendments that the governor made to the bill two weeks ago. After discussing the governor’s amendments with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the administration believes this package addresses the issues identified by the governor’s amendments and he looks forward to signing this version should it reach his desk,” said  Lizzy Guyton , Baker’s communications director, in a statement after the Senate approved its amendment.

Baker’s approval after the latest vote in the police reform bill signals Massachusetts could in fact have a police reform law on the books before the end of an unprecedented, stretched-out legislative session.

When Baker sent back the policing bill 11 days ago, he threatened to veto the sweeping legislation if it banned facial recognition for most agencies and ignored his concerns about civilian oversight of police training, the definition of “bias-free policing” and labor representation on the Peace Officer Standard and Training Commission at the heart of the proposal.

The Senate committee tasked with reviewing Baker’s amendments released a 15-page proposal Monday afternoon that allows facial recognition in certain cases, mainly in emergencies where a person or group of people face a “substantial risk to harm.” An officer would need to file a written request from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Massachusetts State Police or the FBI.

The Senate ultimately let the municipal police training committee retain control of police training, rather than letting a new division under the independent POST Commission, and giving a seat on the commission to a police union representative. Civilian appointees would still outnumber the police officials, 6 to 3.

The latest iteration of the police reform bill isn’t a “magic bullet” to fix the injustices heavily policed communities in Massachusetts have experienced, Senate President  Karen Spilka  said in a statement after the vote Monday night.

“But when given the choice of making necessary compromises or letting this bill be vetoed, it was unconscionable to me to not do what was necessary to lay this important foundation of accountability and transparency,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader  Bruce Tarr , a Gloucester Republican and a key negotiator on the policing bill, pushed to expand police oversight of the POST commission and other changes that Democratic leaders said would have hampered down their efforts to reform policing standards. They were rejected, but he still voted yes on the Senate amendment.

“What remains definitely accomplishes police reform. I think the remaining question is, ‘Does it accomplish it in an appropriate way?’” Tarr told MassLive Monday night. “I think that the governor has been able to allow us to make significant improvements.”

With a House vote expected Tuesday, Sen.  Will Brownsberger  said in a statement “we are in the homestretch” and hopes the bill reaches the finish line.

Sen.  Sonia Chang-Diaz , a member of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and key negotiator on the bill with Brownsberger, described the bill as a true compromise that, in some ways, failed racial justice leaders who sought restrictions on qualified immunity protections for police accused of misconduct, police use of military equipment and other changes that were dropped from the bill.

“Many of us secretly, quietly, with fear for the heart-break it made us vulnerable to, allowed a spark of hope back in June that this time it might be different, that our generation might step with contrition out of the patterns of America’s past,” she said on the Senate floor, “but it is not to be so.”

The Boston Democrat also noted the bill banned chokeholds and racial profiling, restricted no-knock warrants and limited facial recognition when the governor sought to kill those provisions altogether, among other reforms.

“Twelve months ago, these changes were unthinkable in the Massachusetts political landscape. Six months ago even, their chances were dubious,” Chang-Diaz said, addressing racial justice advocates who might be listening to the session through the livestream. “Six days ago, still some of them were in question. You made these things happen.”

Lawmakers and advocates will have to take their fight into the next session, continue pushing for greater police accountability in 2021, Chang-Diaz said.

While advocates for reform press on, so do those arguing the latest brand of change prevents officers from doing their job without fear of losing their livelihood.

“There are a number of things where this amendment, as amended, moves us in a much better direction than where we have been,” Tarr said, noting the latest proposal tweaks language on facial recognition and union representation. “My hope is that that movement will continue.”

Police officials across the state rallied against the legislation as it took shape in the House and Senate, at one point appealing to President  Donald Trump .

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police’s executive board issued a statement criticizing the proposed civilian majority on the POST Commission, the outright ban on chokeholds and other restrictions on police conduct. President  Scott Hovsepian , First Vice President  John Nelson  and Secretary/Treasurer  Robert Murphy  called the measure “unacceptable,” urging the governor to veto the bill.

“These are major flaws in the compromise legislation that do harm to public safety, police officers and their families, and do nothing to achieve the commonwealth’s goal of enhancing the professionalism and accountability of police and protecting the civil rights of all citizens,” the members wrote in a statement.

The House is scheduled to hold formal sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

(c)2020, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.