In 2020, Massachusetts passed a new law on police reform. Among other things, the legislation created a commission to certify and decertify police officers called “POST.” This new law has impacted how law enforcement officers do their job and could influence the outcome of your criminal case.
What is POST?
POST stands for “Peace Officer Standards and Training.” The POST Commission is a 9-person committee. The Governor and the Attorney General appoint the members. Six of them must come from outside law enforcement, but there must also be:
- A current police chief
- A retired Superior Court judge
- A social worker
Importantly, the commissioners—aside from the police chief—must not be law enforcement officers. With the exception of the police chief, they also cannot have been previously employed as a law enforcement officer. In order to serve, each commissioner must have experience or expertise in criminal justice, including criminal law, civil rights law, mental health, or race or bias. Each commissioner serves a 5-year term and can only serve a maximum of 10 years.
What does the POST Commission do?
The main purpose of the POST Commission is to create a mandatory certification process for police officers. This includes procedures to:
- Decertify police officers
- Suspend their certification
- Reprimand police officers when they commit misconduct
In addition to certification, the Commission also reviews complaints on police misconduct, publishes reports on policing practices, and can refer cases for criminal prosecution to the state or federal government. The Commission even has subpoena power, which means it can compel a person to testify before it under oath like a court.
Who can file complaints about police misconduct?
The police reform law requires all law enforcement agencies that receive complaints about police misconduct to submit information to the POST Commission within 2 days after they are received. Anybody can file a complaint, including a government agency. Law enforcement agencies might take action on the complaint, but certain complaints must be forwarded directly to the Commission. These include:
- Complaints alleging bias based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, mental or physical disability, immigration status, or socioeconomic or professional level
- Complaints alleging the use of force that is excessive, illegal, or deadly
- Complaints on any actions resulting in serious bodily injury or death
POST is also required to review certain complaints on unprofessionalism. Minor matters, like when an officer is discourteous or late, do not have to go to POST. However, more serious ones do. For example, this includes when a police officer violates department policy or is untruthful.
How do police departments and POST handle misconduct complaints?
Anytime a police department receives a complaint it is required to forward to POST, it must begin investigating it within 14 days. After the investigation concludes, the department must report to POST the action taken.
POST follows a similar process with complaints except its investigation of misconduct is more formal. For example, the Commission might subpoena witnesses or documents or hire an outside investigator to look into the allegations. It also conducts investigations in two phases, beginning with a maximum 60-day, confidential preliminary investigation.
If POST thinks there is merit to a complaint it could take action on the officer’s certification. For example, during the preliminary investigation it might suspend an officer’s certification. The standard for doing this is that a preponderance of the evidence shows that suspension is necessary for the health, safety, or welfare of the public.
Is an officer decertified if they are charged with a crime?
The Commission will immediately suspend the certification of an officer who is arrested, charged with a crime, or indicted for a felony. The officer can appeal that decision to a single commissioner at a hearing. If an officer is convicted of a felony they are automatically decertified.
How is an officer certified?
The Commission has the important responsibility of establishing standards for law enforcement officer certification. Officers who are decertified cannot continue serving as officers with a department. Certification is a required for any person to be or remain a police officer. At a minimum, to be certified an officer must:
- Be at least 21 years old
- Have a high school diploma or equivalent
- Have completed basic training
- Have completed a physical and psychological fitness evaluation
- Have completed a state and national background check
- Have passed a Commission-approved exam
- Be certified in first aid and CPR or equivalent
- Have completed a successful oral interview with the Commission
- Be of “good moral character” and “fit for employment”
The Commission is responsible for determining what it means to have good moral character and to be fit for employment as a law enforcement officer.
Does certification expire?
Yes, certification has an expiration date. Officers must apply for renewal of their certification certificate before it expires. The Commission will not recertify officers unless they continue to satisfy the minimum certification requirements.
On what grounds can an officer be decertified?
After the preliminary investigation, the Commission has the option of holding a hearing on revoking the officer’s certification. In order to revoke the certification, the Commission must find by clear and convincing evidence that the officer did any of the following, which includes but is not limited to:
- The officer was convicted of a felony
- The officer’s certification was obtained by misrepresentation or fraud
- The officer seeking certification or renewal falsified a document
- The officer’s department fired the officer for conduct including making a false arrest, falsifying or destroying evidence, or committing a hate crime
- The officer submitted false timesheets
- The officer falsified a police report or committed perjury
- The officer used excessive force resulting in death or serious bodily injury
- The officer used an illegal chokehold
- The officer intimidated a witness
- The officer was biased based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, mental or physical disability, immigration status, or socioeconomic or professional level
How does the police reform law impact criminal cases?
POST and the police reform law will impact crime and how criminal cases are prosecuted in Massachusetts. The intent of the law is to hold police officers to a higher standard. The hope is that by requiring certification and decertifying or suspending the certification of officers who do not conduct themselves appropriately this will encourage police officers to behave appropriately. However, some say the procedures will discourage police officers from doing their jobs efficiently and effectively.
In any case, a police officer’s credibility is very important in a criminal case. In order to convict a person of a crime, a jury must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime. Police officer testimony is often critical in criminal cases. As with any witness, jurors evaluate the credibility of police officers who testify as witnesses. Officers who engage in misconduct or have engaged in misconduct can lose credibility so much so that this might influence the outcome of a case.
IF YOU OR A LOVED ONE ARE A POLICE OFFICER OR HAVE A QUESTION ABOUT CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND YOU NEED AN EXPERIENCED CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYER WORKING ON YOUR SIDE TO PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS, PLEASE CONTACT CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY WILLIAM J. BARABINO.
CALL 781-393-5900 TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUR AVAILABLE DEFENSES.