BOSTON — More than 10,000 Massachusetts police officers are expected to undergo a new state certification process this year that will include a review of their personnel records and face-to-face interviews.
As part of this process, the new State Law Enforcement Standards and Training Commission has compiled a list of questions that will be asked of all state law enforcement officers before the independent board only approves their credentials for three years.
Many of the questions are fundamental, such as whether the officers have ever been disciplined or suspended, whether they have ever been charged in a civil lawsuit alleging a violent act against another person, and whether they have a license to carry a firearm.
Other questions, however, dig into officers’ personal opinions on thorny social issues, such as whether they’ve ever sent or posted a “biased” statement on social media websites in the past five years, or they belonged to groups. who discriminate against others because of their race, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
Union members representing state police troopers now say they are “deeply disturbed” by the subjective nature of some of the questions they will have to answer.
“The unintended consequences of some of these issues can be significant,” the State Police Association of Massachusetts said in a statement. “The questions are invasive, subjective and do not assess the various qualities that make a qualified police officer.”
The union points out that some of the questions duplicate those already asked of rank-and-file privates and sergeants as part of the hiring process.
“We will formally ask the POST Commission to reconsider these questions and provide advice on how to answer them in order to eliminate the ambiguity and subjectivity of others so that we can advise our members appropriately”, indicates the statement from the association.
Last Monday, the nine-member commission voted to accept the questions at a meeting in Boston, but council members noted that the wording could be revised.
Enrique Zuniga, executive director of POST, said the commission had a tight deadline to move forward with the certifications of the first group of officers.
“The statute didn’t give us much time, so we felt we had to come up with something,” he said. “Given the time frame, we have to answer those questions, but if we have to come back and change them, we can.”
The POST commission, a key provision of a 2020 revision to the Massachusetts Police Act, includes six civilians and three law enforcement personnel. It has the power to revoke police powers for officers found guilty of wrongdoing, such as excessive use of force or intimidation.
Governor Charlie Baker tabled the police reform plan in response to protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis police officers.
Before the law was passed, Massachusetts was an exception — one of the few states that does not certify police. Officers attend an academy and undergo continuous training throughout their careers, but until now it has been up to local services to oversee it. They are also required to pass a civil service exam, which will not change under accreditation.
Under the new law, every police officer was automatically certified, but those powers expire. The first batch of officers, whose last names begin with A through H, face the June 30 deadline to become certified. The rest of the state employees will be certified over the next two years.
Local police departments will have to ensure that a supervisor conducts an interview with each officer, asking them “reasonable” questions approved by the commission.
“Agencies are not prohibited from asking additional questions or conducting additional interviews or assessments, independent of the certification process,” the plan says.
Zuniga stresses that police responses to POST questions will not be an “automatic disqualification” against certification.
“It is intended to provide the commission with a broad definition of an officer’s character,” he said. “It’s only part of the review process.”
Another part of the process is to review records of all disciplinary actions against officers from hundreds of police departments across the state.
Zuniga says the commission has received these documents from “the vast majority” of police departments and will soon begin reviewing them.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected]