BOSTON - Sixteen civil rights organizations urged legislative leaders Tuesday to reject the House's approach to demographic data collection in a stalled distracted-driving bill.
In a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka that was acquired by the News Service, the groups warned that adopting the draft proposal that House conferees continue to back would push law enforcement "in the direction of secrecy instead of transparency."
The letter, sent one day after DeLeo floated the prospect of splitting the bill and quickly passing a simple ban on all handheld device use while driving, highlights the fault lines that have cracked near-unanimous support for the underlying push as House and Senate negotiators continue their months-long attempts to reach a compromise.
"As advocates for racial justice and good government, we urge the legislature in the strongest terms to reject the harmful data collection language proposed by the House conferees," the groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union's Massachusetts chapter and the NAACP New England Area Conference, wrote. "Their proposal would do absolutely nothing to advance racial justice."
Each branch passed its own bill with similar language requiring hands-free use of electronics behind the wheel, something Gov. Charlie Baker also included in his own driving-safety legislation earlier this year. But they diverged on the specifics of how to monitor for racial profiling during traffic stops.
Families and victims of distracted driving are planning to show up at the State House Thursday to put pressure on Spilka to pass the bill by the end of the day. Safe Roads Alliance and TextLess Live More said they are demanding action and are tired of waiting. If the bill is not signed by Thursday night, they want the hands-free portion passed immediately and the data collection to be worked out in committee, according to a news release.
"The purpose of this bill is simple – to remove the phone from drivers’ hands. There is no disagreement about this part of the bill," the groups said, adding the public is "incensed" about the delay and unclear as to why it hasn't passed.
"We support the data collection language currently in the bill," they said in a statement, "But we cannot accept any longer that a new issue raised by the Senate regarding data collection is holding up the passage of this vital public safety legislation."
The House bill (H 3793) would require police to record the race of every driver issued a citation or written warning. Every year, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security would send a compilation of the data to an outside entity — "including but not limited to a university, non-profit organization or institution" — to analyze it and return a report to the attorney general, state police, the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and the House and Senate clerks.
That language calls for the data itself to be private and does not require any wide release of what the analysis finds, a clear difference from the Senate's approach. In its bill (S 2250), the Senate explicitly mandated that the administration produce and publish a report on demographic characteristics of all drivers pulled over, even those who were not issued citations.
An agreement that came close to passing on July 31 before Senate conferees raised concerns over language would have followed the House lead in restricting public access to the information.
Under that draft, the state would tap an outside entity for analysis. Any organization selected would be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing distribution of the data, although the prohibition does not apply to "publication of aggregate analysis." The original data would be destroyed after a period of time.
The 16 civil rights groups slammed that proposal in their Tuesday letter, writing that blocking publication of traffic-stop data would prevent accountability and allow racial disparities in law enforcement to continue.
"The House Chair's regressive proposal is offensive to advocates for racial justice and anathema to principles of open government and professional policing," they wrote. "We are heartbroken and dismayed that a good faith effort to improve public safety, equitable policing, racial justice, and good government has been twisted to have the opposite result."
While some advocates have criticized the bill's three-plus-month delay as a clear example of Beacon Hill infighting, the conferees face conflicting pressure from outside groups. The Baker administration's public-safety arm backed the House's approach to data collection, and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association flagged concerns with both branches suggestions.
Other onlookers have urged conferees to put aside differences and pass a bill as soon as possible, given the public safety implications.
Conference committee members have been reluctant to discuss why they have not been able to produce a final compromise bill after the House passed a version 155-2 and the Senate approved its own 40-0.
Rep. William Straus, the House chair, has said he believes the July 31 draft is a final agreement, while his Senate counterpart, Joseph Boncore, initially flagged concerns over language. Both say they continue to work on the matter, though neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.
But in a Tuesday interview on WGBH's "Boston Public Radio," Spilka specifically identified how to enforce the data-collection elements as the crux of the disagreement, even referencing the groups that sent her the letter.
"There's over 15 civil rights organizations that have been urging us to stay with the data collection, and since it's a priority in both branches, we should be able to sit down and get the job done, and we are very close," she said. "I'm hoping that both (conference committee) chairs can just hash it out and get it done. We should be able to do this."
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE