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Police Reform as Moral Imperative

Rappaport panel says it's time to build on initiatives and push for action.


A webinar providing diverse perspectives on the topic of police reform was convened at BC Law February 2 by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy. Panelists provided an expansive view of what has been done both federally and within the Commonwealth on this hot-button issue.

“I am absolutely thrilled to be joined by four individuals who have done incredible work to help advance change throughout the criminal legal system, but specifically the transformation that has happened and is happening as it relates to policing,” said moderator Tanisha Sullivan ’02, president of the NAACP Boston Branch. “Each of the panelists comes to this work looking at it through a different lens: a legislative lens, advocacy lens, and law enforcement lens. All of which is so critically important to actually getting things done.”

During the following discussion, panelists explained how their organizations have been contributing to the many ongoing police reform projects and initiatives in Massachusetts and across the country.

Photo above, from left: Tanisha M. Sullivan, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Carlos González, Brian Kyes, and Ajmel Quereshi

Panelist Ajmel Quereshi, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and 2021 Rappaport senior fellow, spoke of police reform at the federal level.

He said the work of LDF is divided into three arms: litigation, legislative advocacy and—most importantly, he noted—public advocacy and organizing.

“The first major component of police reform is the litigation work that has been happening around the country,” said Quereshi. “We’ve seen it a lot this summer. Much of it has been litigation related to restricting the use of military technology by police against peaceful protestors.”

Like parties to litigation in Detroit, Denver, Portland, and Washington, DC, LDF has been involved in a lawsuit in Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was killed by police in March. As the first arm of change, Quereshi explained, these lawsuits not only serve as a way to seek justice for individuals who were harmed by the use of unnecessary force, but also provide injunctive relief, prohibiting the use of certain methods of force and military technology against peaceful protestors in the future.

As for legislative advocacy, Quereshi touched on multiple areas that are receiving significant attention. They include limiting or ending qualified immunity; changing the statutory state of mind standards from willful to reckless; repealing or amending laws that shield misconduct disciplinary records from the public; and prohibiting racial profiling, neck holds, and no-knock policies.

In regards to advocacy and organizing, he said, “LDF has been organizing for what we believe is transformative change with regards to the role of police in society.”

Two major initiatives are to drastically reduce the presence and need for armed law enforcement in black and brown communities and to redirect funds from police departments to underfunded agencies and community-based programs better equipped to address experiences or behaviors that are often inappropriately criminalized. Quereshi cited homelessness, substance abuse, and behavior health crises as examples.

Panelist Carlos González brought the discussion around to legislative efforts within Massachusetts. The state representative for the 10th Hampden District and former chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus played a key role in the formation of the most recent state police reform legislation, which was signed by Governor Charlie Baker in December.

González noted that while highly publicized instances of racial injustice at the hands of police officers incited the rapid mobilization of the bill, the groundwork for its adoption and implementation had long since been laid.

“It’s important to note that June 2 was the day we stood in front of the state house with federal, local, and state officials demanding a ten-point plan,” González said. For two years prior, the Black and Latino Caucus had been discussing police officer standards and training (POST), police accountability, and reforms with the governor. “We were working alongside his office and others throughout the building and the state house to make sure that we can achieve some of those goals,” he explained.

González said that within the ten-point plan are four main goals: police officer standards and training (POST), a civil service review and oversight commission, a commission on structural racism, and the adoption of statutory limits on use of force by police and the banning of choke holds in Massachusetts. “I can honestly say that we have achieved our goal for where we stood on June 2,” he noted.

Sullivan and the panelists agreed that POST is a crucial piece in the transformation of law enforcement, specifically as it relates to the role and behavior of police officers. The significance of POST’s realization is evident in how long it has been on the docket.

“The Massachusetts chiefs have been advocating for POST in our state since 2010,” said panelist Brian Kyes, chief of the Chelsea Police Department (CPD) and president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.

So, what does POST really mean? As explained by Chief Kyes, officers initially take part in an extensive six-month training program after which they receive a certification; much like an attorney being licensed by Bar overseers. This is where the entity of POST comes into play. A nine-member commission then has the ability to decertify an officer who doesn’t keep up with training or commits a certain type of misconduct.

“The idea of decertification by a separate and independent, neutral and detached commission allows for a sense of consistency whereby they can be decertified,” said Chief Kyes.

Being the lone member of law enforcement involved in the Rappaport discussion, Chief Kyes made it very clear that he agreed with everything being said, despite the growing notion of “us v. them” [community v. law enforcement].

“When the rep laid out his ten-point plan—I remember going through it bullet by bullet—we stood there in agreement saying, ‘We agree with everything that’s laid out’,” said Chief Kyes. “In terms of Massachusetts chiefs, we align with what needs to be done.”

Sullivan expressed high hopes for the impact of Massachusetts’ landmark legislation, predicting the bill will lead the national agenda in how people look at police reform around the country. While Sullivan’s prediction is warranted, one panelist was quick to note how important it is to dismiss the myth of exceptionalism as it relates to Massachusetts and issues of racial injustice.

“I’d like to start with some myth-busting,” said Iván Espinosa-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR). “I think it is so critical for us right out of the gate to dismiss the myth of exceptionalism or of the fact that we are immune here in Boston or Massachusetts or in progressive New England from the trends we are seeing across the country.”

He added, “We forget that we have our own George Floyd here in Boston. We have Terrence Coleman, who was fatally shot [in 2017] by Boston Police after his mother called 911 to get an ambulance to take him to the hospital.”

 “Diversity matters; it matters in board rooms, it matters in schools, and it matters in who is patrolling our streets.” — Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

“We want to make sure that law enforcement and public safety agencies are representative of the communities that they serve,” he said. “Diversity matters; it matters in board rooms, it matters in schools, and it matters in who is patrolling our streets.”

Espinosa-Madrigal comes from an advocacy background and has filed and won dozens of life-changing and law-changing cases on a range of civil rights issues. His work, like that of many other advocates, started well before the more recent, polarizing instances of racial injustice and will continue on well past the changes we are starting to see with the new bill. “It is, in fact, intense advocacy that has made the ground fertile for much of the reform we are talking about,” he said.

If advocacy is the fertilizer needed to grow reform, what will it take to grow cultural change? Espinoza-Madrigal said litigation and new legislation are good starting places but will only go so far if we cannot de-root the widespread, systemic racism that plagues society.

Espinoza-Madrigal referred to the attack on the US Capitol as evidence of this plague, specifically, the disproportionate response by law enforcement. “In that moment, we saw racial disparity at its very worst,” he said.

“This conversation on how we inform policy and how we inform law is connected deeply to our values as a people, to our institutions as Americans, and to our racialized history,” he added. “This doesn’t end with George Floyd or Terrence Coleman. It started at the US Capitol.”

View the webinar.