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January 19, 2018

Hearing held on state bill to indemnify UMass PD officers

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

Bill H.958, which had a hearing in the Massachusetts State Legislature Tuesday, would indemnify University of Massachusetts Police Department (UMPD) officers, so if officers are sued while doing their job, their employers would have to provide them legal representation.

In the case of UMPD, the employer would be the state of Massachusetts. Current law does not mandate that they provide legal representation to UMPD if an officer is sued. The bill would amend Chapter 258 of state law, which gives indemnity to officers and employees of municipalities and counties in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

“The police officers that work at UMass go through the same training as the city police officers or town police officers—in some cases get more training—but if they do something, they could be found personally liable,” Massachusetts state representative John W. Scibak said.

Scibak, representing Hampshire County District Two, and state representative William L. Crocker, Jr., representing Barnstable County District 2, are both petitioning for the bill, which on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts General Court’s website reads concisely as, “An Act relative to indemnification of the University of Massachusetts police.”

“The bill’s pretty short, and the reason why it’s so short is this chapter, Chapter 258 of state law, basically indemnifies public employees, just people doing their job, just doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Scibak said. “In this particular situation, the current law does not do that for UMass police.”

Indemnity, according to Sciback, does not mean that police are immune to prosecution for missteps. He brought up incidents in other states where police have been documented not following procedure by dash cameras on cars or a body camera.

“In those situations, those police officers may not be indemnified because they’re not following procedures,” he said. “It’s not like you can do anything you want and you’re covered.”

Sciback added, “As long as they were doing things appropriately, then the University or the city or town would essentially cover them.”

His main argument is that UMPD is essentially fulfilling the same responsibilities as the Amherst police or any other community, noting too how UMPD officers have to go through the same training that any municipal police department’s officers have to do, which is not always the case with campus security on other campuses.

UMass PD “has the arrest power, the authority and the training,” he said.

The full text of Bill H.958 reads, “Amends GL 258:9A to require that the Commonwealth provide legal representation to any member of the University of Massachusetts Police Department who is sued in tort or for a civil rights violation and to indemnify such officers for any damages to be paid up to $1,000,000, as long as the tort or civil rights violation occurred within the scope of the official duties of the officer. It prohibits indemnification if the officer acted in a willful, wanton, or malicious manner.”

Jackson Cote can be reached at jkcote@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.

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