Getting Answers: impact of Massachusetts police reform bill

Western Mass News is digging deeper into a police reform bill that passed in the Bay State in 2020.
Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 10:33 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Western Mass News is digging deeper into a police reform bill that passed in the Bay State in 2020. The trickle-down effects of this new law are now being seen in local police departments, especially small, rural ones.

Kevin Hennessey is the chief of the Russell-Montgomery Police Department. The last few months, he’s been challenged with recruiting and retaining officers, even while he struggles with his budget.

“It’s made a bidding war with other communities to retain officers,” Hennessey said.

He worries he will lose one of his nine officers to bigger police departments that can pay more. A racial justice and police reform bill, known as “An Act Relative to Justice, Equity, and Accountability in Law Enforcement in the Commonwealth,” was passed by state legislators back in 2020, following the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd. After being signed into law, it has started to take a toll on some police departments, specifically small, rural departments like Hennessey’s

“It puts a strain on budgets. It depletes our manpower and it makes a bidding war,” Hennessey added.

The law puts in place more training requirements for all officers. Although most officers argue that more training is a good thing, the state didn’t provide the funds to these departments to accommodate for the extra training. In the case of the Russell-Montgomery Police Department, they rely on almost all part time officers, who usually have other jobs to supplement their income. They don’t have the time or money of their own to attend these extra trainings.

“They had to go to POST certification. They had to go to what they call the Bridge Academy, which was 200 hours of online and additional in-person training, which created quite the financial stress on the budgets. The curriculum wasn’t presented before the budgets were set, so the towns had to basically eat the additional costs,” Hennessey explained.

Now, more training is a good thing for officers, at least that’s how Springfield Police Captain Brian Beliveau feels. For Springfield Police, they added the training to their curriculum and were able to get their officers trained in their own facility right away.

“We train that because we have a facility. We have our own facility, our own staff. We are one of the certified academies throughout the state…We haven’t had anybody have to go outside the city of Springfield to meet POST requirements,” Beliveau noted.

In addition, they don’t struggle as much with recruiting and retaining officers, like Russell does, since they are such a large department.

State Senator John Velis voted no on the bill back in 2020 and said he’d do so again today if it was worded exactly the same. Although he said the bill had great intentions, he believed it was rushed.

“Anytime you do legislation, it’s always better to stop, pause, and take a breath and maybe you’ll be able to anticipate some of the problems that might come down the road. In this instance, I don’t think we did a good enough job doing that,” Velis explained.

Beliveau agreed the law has taken some great steps in eliminating excessive force by law enforcement in Massachusetts. For one, they prohibited the use of chokeholds by any police officer. They’ve also put in place requirements for officers who witness excessive force behavior.

“Duty to intervene, so that’s seeing behavior that you believe is excessive from a police officer’s prospective. We train that anyways, the duty to report that behavior,” Beliveau said.

However, Velis saod he’s fighting for the smaller departments like Hennessey’s and is looking to get them more state money to send these officers to the training that’s required, especially during a time where many people aren’t choosing law enforcement for their career path.

“It’s on average four to eight thousand dollars. That in it of itself could decimate a small community and prevent them from doing the training…You have to pay for it. You have to take into account that each community is different with different budgets, so that was a really big, big flaw, in my opinion, of the process,” Velis added.