Letter: Senator Lewis – Reform, Shift + Build Act

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To the editor –

After reading Dan Ensminger’s recent letter to the Reading Post, I wanted to offer some clarifications and corrections. Unfortunately, readers may have been confused by the sensational and inaccurate letter that Mr. Ensminger penned about the passage of the Reform, Shift + Build Act in the Massachusetts State Senate.

I believe that the vast majority of our law enforcement officers are dedicated public servants who are charged with doing extremely challenging and important work to keep our communities safe. I have great respect and appreciation for our police officers and their families.

At the same time, I think we must recognize both the long history and many recent examples of police violence and bias directed at people of color, including in Massachusetts. For example, see the report released this month by the Department of Justice about their investigation into the narcotics bureau of the Springfield Police Department or read about the ACLU of Massachusetts’ record of pursuing accountability for police misconduct.

I was proud to support the Reform, Shift + Build Act, which I believe will increase police accountability, shift the role of law enforcement away from surveillance and punishment, and begin to dismantle systemic racism in our structures of power.

Some have raised understandable concerns about making changes to qualified immunity for police officers (and other public employees, including state legislators like myself) and fears that police officers might be held unreasonably liable for even minor mistakes reasonably committed while doing their job.

Fortunately, I can assure you that this is not the case. The bill passed by the Senate would only conceivably allow a police officer (or other public employee) to be held liable for violating a person’s civil rights in the most egregious circumstances – where a police officer has clearly and unreasonably broken the law and violated a person’s constitutional rights with their conduct. The problem that this legislation seeks to address is that the current legal interpretation of qualified immunity has become so broad that it is almost universally encompassing, even in cases where clearly anyone – especially a reasonable police officer – would condemn the actions of the offender.

Mr. Ensminger also suggested that this legislation was hastily prepared and passed without public input. This couldn’t be further from the truth: the bill largely drew from other legislation which had already received public hearings earlier this year and last, and it was developed by a bipartisan working group of legislators with expertise in criminal justice and race issues. 

Ultimately, the reforms proposed in this bill are in response to the overwhelming cries in our communities and around the country for racial justice and meaningful accountability in the face of shocking patterns of brutality and abuse. Our action on these issues was long overdue, and I am proud of my vote for this important legislation.

Senator Jason Lewis

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