Lawmakers press bill on funding police alternatives

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston. FILE PHOTO

  • SABADOSA

  • COMERFORD

Staff Writer
Published: 1/26/2022 8:59:13 AM

State lawmakers in favor of alternatives to law enforcement are pushing for passage of the ACES Act, a bill before the Legislature’s Public Safety and Homeland Security joint committee that would provide funding for new community-based unarmed response programs.

State Sen. Jo Comerford and state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, both Democrats of Northampton, are among those seeking a favorable report from the joint committee by the Feb. 2 deadline for the bill to be heard in the current legislative session.

Senate Bill 1552, called “An Act to Create Alternatives for Community Emergency Services,” would establish a new grant program to help communities fund unarmed alternatives to law enforcement in response to 911 calls. Sabadosa said that, if approved, federal pandemic relief money sent to the state through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act would fund the initial program design and 80% of the grants for the first three years.

Sabadosa, the lead sponsor of the bill in the House, and a group called the ACES Act Coalition — representatives of two dozen nonprofits statewide — joined a virtual meeting earlier this week to answer questions from the public and provide an update on the bill’s progress.

“Before I was even elected (in 2018), this is something I was thinking about,” Sabadosa said, recalling a time when she saw a young child having “a meltdown” in the parking lot of the Northampton YMCA; the child’s caregivers, she said, called the police.

“It really struck me that … the best solution we had in our community to a situation that the caregivers couldn’t control was to call in armed police officers,” she said. Police officers “are not the people to call when your kid is having a meltdown, or at least they shouldn’t be.”

The grant program would be run by a board composed of representatives from specific nonprofits, along with the secretary of the Department of Mental Health. The nonprofits include the Greater Boston Association of Black Social Workers, the Massachusetts Peer Support Network and the Western Massachusetts Learning Community.

One board member “shall be a consumer of services of the Massachusetts Office of Addiction and Recovery,” the bill’s text reads, while another “shall be a consumer of services of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute,” which works to support victims of crime and trauma and their families.

Police as crisis responders

Last year, the city of Northampton created the Department of Community Care, a peer-led team of unarmed responders that will handle certain nonviolent incidents such as suspicious person calls, mental health crises and requests for social services. In its March 2021 report, the citizen-run Policing Review Commission listed creating the new department as its first recommendation.

Former Mayor David Narkewicz and City Council appropriated $423,955 to the department, while Comerford secured another $150,000 in a state budget appropriation. Implementation Director Sean Donovan was hired in November to launch the department’s operations by the start of fiscal year 2023, which is July 2022.

Barbara Atim Okeny, a licensed mental health professional and member of the group Diverse People United, said she is a Black woman from a family of immigrants, and many people in those communities hesitate to call the police for any reason.

“I’d like to be clear that the police have become the first line of defense in mental health crises,” Okeny said. “This bill will help to end the criminalization of mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.”

The ACES Act’s voluntary competitive grants could be used “to develop local systems for protecting the mental and physical well-being of residents, preventing violence, de-escalating volatile situations, ensuring access to human services and reducing government use of force,” the bill’s text reads.

Situations that would warrant a police alternative include “emergency and non-emergency situations that do not necessitate the presence of law enforcement personnel, or, where appropriate, the person requesting help requests a response from an alternative to law enforcement,” the bill reads.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate and a candidate for governor, said 240 million calls are made to 911 every year in the U.S., and most of them are not related to serious crimes or danger. The National 911 Program reported that nearly 3.5 million calls were placed in Massachusetts in 2019.

“Officers are expected to resolve noise complaints, reverse overdoses, discipline schoolchildren” and address behavioral crises, but they are not trained mental health or addiction crisis responders, Chang-Diaz said.

Suspects ‘brutalized’

Darrell Murkison, a community activist with the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition and past president of the North Shore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said there is a racial disparity in police use of force, even in Massachusetts.

“Over-policing of Black and brown people happens in Massachusetts, and it’s happening right now. … We live with that reality every day, and that’s why we’re afraid to call the police for help, even when we need it,” Murkison said.

Murkison listed the names of people of color who were beaten or killed by Lynn police officers over the past several decades, including Victor White. Former Lynn Police Officer Matthew Coppinger is currently on probation for repeatedly punching White, a Black man, inside a holding cell for refusing to take off his mask near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murkison also brought up the case of Denis Reynoso, a 29-year-old Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who was shot and killed inside his home in September 2013. Reynoso was in the midst of a mental health crisis when he took control of an officer’s gun and fired two shots at his head, missing each time as the officer fought him.

Officer Joshua Hilton warned Reynoso five times that he would be shot, then opened fire on him. Reynoso later died at the hospital. The Essex District Attorney’s Office determined the shooting was justified, and all three officers later received the highest law enforcement honor in the state, the Trooper George L. Hanna Memorial Awards for Bravery.

“For decades, unarmed Black and brown people have been brutalized and killed by the Lynn police” and other departments in Essex County, Murkison said. “Simply put, I know Lynn … and I know without question that Lynn needs an unarmed response team.”

Lynn city officials last summer approved $500,000 for an unarmed pilot program called the All Lynn Emergency Response Team, or ALERT.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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