Anxiety is high as the initial round of law enforcement officers prepares to go through the first recertification process under a 2020 policing reform law and it’s evident in the small number of agencies that have interacted with the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission as significant deadlines approach.
Massachusetts became one of the last states in the country to have a board in charge of licensing law enforcement officers when Gov. Charlie Baker signed in late 2020 a law designed to bolster the state’s oversight of police officers following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers in Minnesota and Kentucky, respectively. Officers who completed training by July 1, 2021, were considered certified under the law and a three-year recertification cycle was established based on where each officer’s last name falls in the alphabet.
Officers with last names starting with a letter A through H, including chiefs, reserve officers, and retired officers who work details, must be recertified by July 1, 2022, and the POST Commission, the state’s new policing accountability body, has set a June 15 deadline for all agencies to submit information about those officers.
Executive Director Enrique Zuniga told POST Commission members Wednesday morning that 172 agencies have interacted in some way with the commission’s online portal through which officer information is to be submitted. Of those 172 agencies, just 50 have actually submitted materials. That leaves about 294 agencies that have not yet even reached out to the POST Commission for the credentials necessary to access that portal.
“We expect, of course, that given the number of agencies that we are potentially dealing with — we have to assume that at least every agency might have at least one individual whose name is A to H — so I believe we’ll be interacting with all 460-plus agencies,” Zuniga said. “That leaves a lot of agencies that still have to obtain credentials, and of course, submit information. And then of course for us to validate that information. So we expect that the next couple of weeks will be rather busy.”
By the end of the meeting, the next few weeks got even busier than Zuniga realized when he gave his executive director’s report at the outset. The POST Commission rejected the draft regulations proposed to guide the recertification decisions that will come once agencies submit information to the commission. Instead, the commission is planning to meet again “as soon as possible,” Zuniga said, to consider changes to the draft.
Some commissioners — including Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Larry Calderone and Larry Ellison, the former president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers — and a number of people who submitted questions or statements during Wednesday’s meeting said they were uncomfortable with a vote on the regulations Wednesday without having time to review the changes made since they were last discussed.
Chairwoman Margaret Hinkle, a retired Superior Court judge, called for a vote regardless. Hinkle and attorneys Kimberly West and Marsha Kazarosian voted to adopt the regulations on an emergency basis while Louis D. Brown Peace Institute CEO Clementina Chéry joined Wynn, Calderone and Ellison in opposition. The commission’s two other members — Charlene Luma, chief of the Victim Witness Assistance Program in the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, and psychologist Hanya Bluestone — abstained from the vote.
Aside from the technical language of the recertification regulations, it was clear Wednesday that police officers around the state are uncomfortable with the questions being asked of them in a questionnaire that is part of the materials the POST Commission requires as part of the recertification process. The “series of highly invasive, improper, unfair, and irrational questionnaires” was cited in a lawsuit filed against the commission in April by police groups.
“I think the POST could do everybody a big favor by looking at some of those odd questions and remove them. It would make the process a lot easier in a time when this legislation also created an avenue to take care of officer wellness and stress and environment,” Yarmouth Police Chief Frank Frederickson said. “As a chief, I know that administration can cause just as much stress as the officers on the street. And I think this questionnaire and the way some of the questions are posed is creating undue stress on an already stressed environment.”
The questionnaire includes eight questions, including whether the officer is current on tax payments, has ever had a restraining order taken out against them, has been a civil suit defendant accused of acting violently or abusively, has been licensed to possess a firearm, has been subject to a suspension of more than five days, has made any social media posts or public statements in the last five years that could be perceived as biased, has been part of any group that unlawfully discriminates against people, and whether there is anything else relevant to their “eligibility or fitness to be recertified as a law enforcement officer.”
An officer’s responses to the questionnaire and any comments he or she makes during the oral interview that follows “should be considered when evaluating whether the Officer satisfies the requirement to be of good moral character and fit for employment as a law enforcement officer, but any ultimate determination of character and fitness should be based on the totality of the information obtained,” the POST Commission said.
“Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, there is defensiveness out there, there is nervousness, and that’s justified. And I think the commission has to do everything it can to keep the teeth and value of the regulatory process without unfairly overreaching,” John Scheft, an attorney representing the Massachusetts Police Association, said. “And I think that’s what you have to think about with the questionnaire. And, yes, we all realize that the questionnaire is part of a statutory directive. But other than that statutory command, the type of questions, the way they’re worded, the number of questions, that discretion and thoughtfulness resides with you.”
Zuniga said he has persistently encountered questions and comments from law enforcement officers or representatives who feel that the POST Commission is trying to “catch individuals in an untruthfulness trap” with the questionnaire.
“There’s some concerns, I don’t know how broad these concerns are but, that an incomplete or insufficient answer might lead to subsequent discipline or repercussions to the individual or their chief doing an attestation. And in the meetings that I’ve had, and in the presentations that I’ve given, and the questions that I answer and others on our staff answer, we continue to communicate that that is simply not the intent of the process here,” he said.
‘Things can go in a different direction if we’re not careful’
Sen. Nick Collins of South Boston was among those who voiced concerns about the POST Commission questionnaire and its processes generally during Wednesday’s meeting.
Collins, who voted against the Senate’s policing reform bill in 2020 but then voted to accept the compromise version that emerged from negotiations with the House, said the POST Commission “was lifted up in legislation to be a commission of precision” and repeatedly cautioned the commission to be “careful” as it goes about its work so as to not discourage law enforcement recruitment or to disrupt the balance of trust between police and the people they serve.
“I know that it was communicated earlier that the intentions of the range of questions and particularly the, sort of the open-endedness to some of them wasn’t intended to be, you know, to harm. But I think it’s important to note and I believe that this commission understands — I just want to cite examples of how things can go in a different direction if we’re not careful. So since March, I’ve accumulated in my office … in a way that we haven’t seen in my time representing this district since 2018, the wave of complaints coming from parents at the Boston Public Schools alone about violence and not calling 911,” Collins said. “And we don’t disconnect the fact that when there’s a chilling effect on police in a pursuit of information, most of which is accessible by this commission, to lead in a way that it says is not intended but can. So the chilling effect of recruitment, we’re seeing that already. Not to mention within our communities of color, we’re trying to diversify our ranks, we need to. So I think it’s important to know that, that what we say matters — all of us, I’m in the same boat — what we do matters.”
Collins said many of the law enforcement officers he represents “are feeling more vulnerable than they ever had” and told the POST Commission that it should consider its own legitimacy as it undertakes the state’s first police officer certification process.
“When we go out there and we’re trying to communicate — because there’s an obligation publicly, and I think that’s an important one, to maintain and establish the legitimacy of this commission because you’re a young child right now. You’re not seasoned as an entity. As professionals, your characters are unquestioned and that’s why you’re the founding members of this commission, so we trust in your leadership — but the importance of how we get off the ground here, I can’t understate the impact that it has,” Collins said.
One person who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting said he took issue with language in the POST Commission’s draft regulations that defined good moral character to include things like promoting public confidence in law enforcement, integrity and morality.
“It seems to me that you’re going beyond ‘good moral character’ and ‘fit for employment’ to a kind of Boy Scout standard that exceeds the statutory authority,” Alan Shapiro, who said he has been representing police unions for 40 years, said. “If I’m a police officer, I go to work, I show up every day, I do my job. If I get a call, I go on the call. I’m not biased. If I have to make an arrest, I make an arrest. Isn’t that enough? I mean, why do I have to promote public confidence in law enforcement?”