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Details, details
Cape politicians say towns might want to take a fresh look at police traffic work

BOSTON - Gov. Mitt Romney reacted favorably to a study by Suffolk University's Beacon Hill Institute that found Massachusetts taxpayers and businesses could save as much as $67 million by switching from police details to civilian flaggers for traffic control, as is done in every other state.

The spotlight is back on the issue of paying police - such as this officer in Hyannis last week - to work traffic details.
(Staff photo by KEVIN MINGORA)


But it isn't clear whether Romney or anyone in the Legislature will have the political will to challenge the police monopoly on traffic details, an issue that the Beacon Hill Institute's director of research, John Barrett, calls "sort of the third rail of politics around here."

"I think it is the fact that politicians don't want the police officers out there campaigning, saying so and so, in terms of public safety, 'he wants to take policemen off the street.' You don't want to get those guys annoyed," Barrett said.

When former Gov. William Weld and a handful of legislators proposed letting highway engineers decide whether police were needed at road-work zones in the early 1990s, they were met with a backlash that shook the Legislature. About 800 police officers crammed the Statehouse to argue against the proposal.

Later, Rep. Shirley Gomes, R-Harwich, was one of only five state representatives to co-sponsor a bill in 1996 that would have allowed town leaders, in consultation with police, to decide whether police officers were needed for construction details.

Gomes, who also served on the Harwich Board of Selectmen for eight years, said she would vote for the same bill today.

"I thought it had some merit," Gomes said. "It allowed the chief elected official in town, working with the police department, to decide when safety required a police officer to be at the scene ... The important thing would be public safety would have to be put first, and the community would be involved in public safety issues."

When she was a selectman, Gomes said, the board was under the impression that police details were required by state law. It's a common misunderstanding, the institute's Barrett said.

In fact, there is no state law requiring municipalities and businesses to hire police details at work zones, but it has been passed by local ordinance in virtually every city and town. Much of the cost is borne by businesses, including telephone and cable utilities, who then pass it onto consumers, the Beacon Hill Institute said.

The institute estimated that switching to civilian flaggers would save $37 million to $67 million a year. It received information from 103 of the state's 351 cities and towns. The institute said other police departments either put up expensive roadblocks to compiling the information or did not respond.

Police warned to hold back
The Massachusetts Police Association, which has 22,000 members across the state, warned police departments in a newsletter earlier this year to "use discretion in the amount of information given" to the Beacon Hill Institute.
"The hair on the back of our neck began to rise upon learning of a study being conducted by the Suffolk Institute, a think tank at Suffolk University, regarding police details," the association said in the newsletter. "Experience tells us this cannot be good."

The police association could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The institute estimated that municipal police across the state were paid $94 million in traffic details last year. The figure does not include state police, who typically work details on state highway projects. The institute said police charged an average of $34.70 per hour for details last year, while civilian flaggers in other states made between $9.97 and $21, depending on their level of training.

Police unions and the institute dispute whether civilian flaggers in Massachusetts would be paid more than police under the state's prevailing wage law for construction workers. Police also say the roads are safer with law enforcement details.

But the institute says Massachusetts has the worst accident rate in the nation for property damage and the second-worst accident rate involving injuries.

"Police details for traffic control have become an expensive entitlement whose elimination would save Bay Staters millions of dollars a year," said David Tuerck, the institute's executive director.

Issue back in spotlight
Critics of the report say the comparison does not take into account accident rates at construction sites. However, the institute's findings are putting an old issue back into the spotlight.
Rep. Jeffrey Perry, R-Sandwich, a former Wareham police officer, said cities and towns already have the right to use civilian flaggers, because there is no state law prohibiting it. He did not see a reason to pass a new state law.

"As a former police officer, I know there were many times a trained law enforcement officer was appropriate," Perry said. "I also know there were many times I personally worked details where a flagman would have sufficed. I think those decisions are best left at the local level."

Perry said there should be a balance, worked out by officials in a town's government, highway and police departments.

He said many officers could not afford to live in the towns they protect unless their salaries were boosted by paid details when they are off-duty. If details were cut, Perry suggested, towns would have to pay police officers more to stay.

Perry said he "relied on details and road jobs to provide me with enough income to live a middle-class lifestyle. If a community has a desire to go with the flagmen, perhaps some contractual give and take needs to be made."

"Needs to be looked into"
Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth, said the police detail system "needs to be looked into ... I certainly would consider letting the towns make their own rules."
Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Barnstable, who was elected to his third term in the Cape and Islands District this month, wasn't in the Legislature the last time the idea was seriously debated.

He said the subject of police details came up in private conversations two years ago when lawmakers were crafting a local relief bill to make up for cuts in state aid, but it was quickly dropped.

"A lot of people had a lot of scar tissue about it," he recalled.

O'Leary took heat from police officers last year when he proposed phasing out a program that gave them automatic pay raises for attaining college degrees. He said the police detail system "should be looked at."

"I think there's a lot of public recognition this might not be the wisest use of taxpayer dollars," O'Leary said. "Is there an ability or a willingness to take it up? It obviously should be looked at. I don't sense a lot of appetite among my colleagues to take this issue up."

Abuses reported
There have also been abuses of the system. The Boston Globe reported this fall that hundreds of Boston police officers have collected detail pay for working two shifts in separate locations at the same time. Other Boston officers have been found to skip court dates to work details, or call in sick to work details, allowing them to collect pay for both.
Romney reacted positively after the institute's report was released, but made no promises.

"The report this morning ... suggested that there is an opportunity for substantial savings," Romney said. "It is something we are going to look at very carefully. If we can save for our cities and towns tens of millions of dollars, that's something we have to do."

Rep. Eric Turkington, D-Falmouth, said he would wait to see whether Romney, who has pledged to reform state government, would follow up.

"If the governor is keen on reform, let him propose it," Turkington said. "We consider everything up here."

Messages requesting comment yesterday were not returned by state Sen. Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, and state Reps. Thomas George, R-Yarmouth, and Demetrius Atsalis, D-Hyannis. State Rep. Susan Williams Gifford, R-Wareham, is on vacation.

(Published: November 16, 2004)
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