Image by Tak Toyoshima
Everyone from architects to barbers needs to be licensed in Mass—should police have the same standard?
Mental health and human service workers. Barbers, chiropractors, massage therapists, podiatrists, and optometrists. Cosmetologists, nutritionists, and hearing specialists.
Sanitarians and embalmers.
To legally operate in the Commonwealth, all of the above professionals need to be certified by the state’s Division of Professional Licensure (DPL). Regulating and approving more than 350,000 people belonging to 28 boards of registration in about 50 professions, the DPL keeps an eye on virtually all tradesmen and women from Winthrop to Williamstown. From social workers to home inspectors, architects, plumbers, sheet metal fabricators, electricians, and real estate brokers—as well as the instructors who train many of them.
Other careers have dedicated overseer agencies. Attorneys answer to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, teachers to the Office of Educator Licensure. Considering that such permissions are used as a public safety mechanism, it comes as a surprise to some that law enforcement officers have no comparable state oversight.
“We were getting nowhere with holding police accountable,” says Roxbury activist Jamarhl Crawford. On Monday, March 28, Crawford’s group Massachusetts Police Reform will host a town hall forum at Roxbury Community College to raise awareness about licensing. He continues, “Looking for a way to sensibly address [police misconduct], I was talking to [Boston civil rights attorney] Howard Friedman. He asked if I had ever heard of decertification, and I found out Massachusetts was one of the only states that doesn’t have it. That was strange. Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama—they figured it out, but we haven’t?”
Crawford’s deep dive into law enforcement licensing led him to Roger Goldman, a professor of law emeritus at Saint Louis University and the country’s leading expert on the subject. Well aware of the gap in Commonwealth authority over those charged with protecting the public, Goldman explained that while state law prevents the hiring of officers with felony convictions, there’s nothing to prevent undesirable cops who rack up ethical or even misdemeanor offenses from leaving one place of employment and resurfacing elsewhere.
“You’re one of six states that doesn’t have a system that’s really analogous to 150 different occupations and professions,” Goldman tells DigBoston. “It’s just standard stuff, not rocket science … There is no way to decertify an officer for any kind of misconduct. Under current law, another department could hire this officer.”
Goldman notes that Mass has “the first component” of statewide licensing, which is “training through a municipal police council which sets forth standards.” In order to join every state besides New York, New Jersey, California, Rhode Island, and Hawaii in adding what is often called a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) board, according to a “Model Licensing and License Revocation Law” recommended by Goldman, the Commonwealth would additionally need to “establish by law a commission with the power to certify or license law enforcement and … to revoke the license or issue lesser discipline for officers who have been found to have violated standards of conduct set forth in the statute.”
Such a POST mechanism would also “have the authority to certify that individuals have met the state selection and training standards” and establish a process through which complaints of misconduct could be reported to a designated state commission. The body would “investigate all allegations from hiring agencies or other sources that certified officers have violated commission standards” and “depending on the type of violation, the facts and circumstances of the case, and any prior commission discipline, the commission should impose the most appropriate administrative sanction, to include suspension or revocation of the license.”
Goldman says a statewide set of standards would allow for easier and more efficient background checks and noted an Associated Press report from last November showing that hundreds of cops across the country have lost their law enforcement licenses due to sexual misconduct. Since Mass has no such standard, there’s no real way to track officers who are predators or have violent but non-felonious histories. Adds Crawford, “When a lawyer is disbarred, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s criminal charges. That’s what this would do. Charges be damned.”
Nationally, there is some appetite among police administrators to support POST boards, and Crawford has secured a letter of endorsement for such oversight from the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, which helps synthesize such licensing efforts. In many cases, chiefs and superintendents have to face journalists when rank and file cops fumble, and it could make their job easier if an independent board yanks the offending officer’s patrol license. Nevertheless, Crawford and others pushing for reform can count on coming up against a fight in the Commonwealth.
“We don’t have a problem with standardized training, but what people don’t realize is it’s basically a license,” says James Machado, executive director of the nonprofit Massachusetts Police Association. “Once someone has the certification, they’ll leave one department for another where there’s better pay.” In addition to saying small departments with less money would suffer, Machado also argues that such measures wouldn’t make it easier for brass to dump unsavory anomalies, adding, “If someone commits an offense, whether it’s certified or uncertified, there’s still going to be a process. Unions aren’t just going to allow it.”
Goldman, who plans to testify about police licensing at a hearing on Beacon Hill next Tuesday, says public advocates will need to get past such enduring disagreements with law enforcement agencies if they hope to turn their conversation into legislation.
“It’s usually a coalition—a combination of grassroots organizations and others,” says Goldman, who has seen successful campaigns to install POST boards in other states. “But to make it through the legislature the police chiefs have to be on board. It has to be viewed as a step toward professionalism. You would think that to be a true profession you would need a way to remove the bad apples.”
“I don’t think anything’s going to happen tomorrow,” Crawford says. “We’re injecting an idea now for a really serious push in 2017. As soon as [the legislature] rolls around again, we are going to be right up on it.”
Join Jamarhl Crawford and Roger Goldman for a Community Town Hall Forum on Monday, 3.28 at 6pm in the Media Arts Auditorium at Roxbury Community College. More info on that event and the 3.29 State House hearing at blackstonian.com and masspolicereform.com.