For a very long time, I had wanted a career in law enforcement (in addition to writing crime novels, which I do now), and I decided to explore the overlap of my potential career interest with a part of my identity -- being Autistic. I quickly realized that the vast majority of states do not offer or require training about autism for law enforcement, which has repeatedly led to unfortunate situations, including wrongful deaths, wrongful arrest, exacerbation of sensory problems, and even altercations, all of which could have been avoided had officers been taught to recognize common behavioral and verbal characteristics of Autistic people and to respond with appropriate de-escalation techniques.
In fall 2009, I approached my then State Representative, Katherine Clark, about the possibility of creating legislation to require an autism training program for law enforcement in Massachusetts. By the Spring, I had drafted legislative language, and the bill was filed for the first time as House Bill 4811 in May 2010. Unfortunately, it was a late file (as the session had started in January 2009 and was to conclude at the end of July 2010), and never made it out of committee, which would have been the first step to moving forward in the legislative process. I later learned that that was the first year that a new bill filing system had been introduced, and that many committees were inadvertently uninformed of bills assigned to their committee.
Unfazed by the first fledgling attempt at filing legislation, the bill was refiled in the 2011-2012 legislative session in January, ahead of the filing deadline, in both the House and the Senate. By this time, I had received a few suggestions about the bill's language, and had incorporated them into minor revisions in the text of the bill, now filed as Senate Bill 1197 and House Bill 2909. Katherine Clark was now my State Senator, and the newly elected State Representative for my district, Paul Brodeur, also agreed to sponsor the bill. Very quickly, another Senator, Jim Timilty, and two other Representatives, Denise Provost and Kay Khan, signed their names as co-sponsors. All of this was very exciting.
I anxiously waited for the committee to schedule a date for a hearing -- committees must hold public hearings before a bill can progress in the legislative process. My bill had been assigned to the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, where Senator Clark sits and which Senator Timilty co-chairs. More optimism came my way as the chairs of a legislative committee can often exercise a good amount of influence on the committee's activities and decisions. The hearing was held on 19 May 2011, and several people submitted written or oral testimony in favor of the bill along with my own testimony -- cobbled together at one in the morning the day of the hearing in true student fashion.
After that, progress came to a standstill. I've spent the last nine months waiting to hear word -- any word -- from Senator Clark's office, from Senator Timilty's office, from anyone associated with the committee -- about when the committee could be expected to favorably report the bill from committee and move it forward in the legislative process. At the beginning of the summer, I was told that my bill was one of ten priority bills that the committee intended to report favorably by the end of summer. At the end of August, nine other bills had been reported favorably from committee. Mine had not.
Months passed with other pieces of information -- that the casino debate had taken the bulk of everyone's attention and it would not be addressed until late October; that the House co-chair of the committee, Rep. Harold Naughton, was deployed on active duty, and they wanted to wait for him to return before taking action; that at the beginning of the year (January), they needed to act without Rep. Naughton...
After continual frustration and anxiety, Senator Clark's legislative staffer called me today. My bill was to be included in an omnibus type bill with more general language. I called Senator Timilty's office and spoke to his Chief of Staff less than two hours before writing this. Instead of an omnibus bill, only one piece of legislation (Senate Bill 1258), which was intentionally written with very vague wording, will be released from committee next week. My legislation and some related initiatives around police training programs were to be rolled into S-1258 -- the bill language would not be included, but the bill's history would be amended into S-1258's bill history. My bill is not leaving the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. It is dead, effective today.
Senator Timilty's Chief of Staff told me that I should re-file in the next legislative session, 2013-2014. He said that it's a good idea that will continue to have support. It can't go through, however, because of financial reasons. Massachusetts's police are operating on a deficit, in particular regard with training officers. Such a mandate cannot be funded were it to pass. Even if the autism training program would save money in the long run, there's no money for it now, and thus the bill has been killed.
S-1258 creates a funding mechanism for police training, which Senator Timilty's Chief of Staff told me would hopefully be able to be expanded in the future to allow for additional programs and initiatives, such as a program on autism. The bill's language specifies only that the Municipal Training Committee update its programs. That was, he said, the key phrasing. That's all. No mention of autism, nor of disability in general. They were reassured by the MTC that training programs will be updated to include training on appropriate and respectful interactions with a variety of marginalized groups -- people who don't speak English, people with physical disabilities, people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. But reassurances without the backing of regulations or legislation don't carry much weight with me.
I've heard that it takes an average of six years to pass a bill in Massachusetts. I started this process in 2009, and first filed in 2010. It's 2012. Two-ish years down. Four to go? Maybe more?
I'm a writer, and I can't seem to find the best adjectives to describe my feelings right now. Disappointed is a good one. Frustrated seems too mild. On the verge of crying is on the cliché side. But I'm unable to produce more precise verbiage at the moment, so those will have to do.
Three years, and I'm right back to where I started. Well, this is depressing.