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Police, Mass. teaming up to track misuse of EBT benefits

Local police are joining the Patrick administration in a­ ­pilot project aimed at identifying individuals and businesses who misuse EBT cards, one of the state’s key welfare programs.

The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and the ­Massachusetts Major City Chiefs are working with the state Department of Transitional Assistance to address complaints of fraud and misuse of the welfare assistance program.

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Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes said he was initially skeptical about using his department's resources to enforce rules for a state welfare program. But after he read new laws enacted last December, he concluded there was a place for police.

“There may be a common goal here,’’ Kyes said.

Under the plan, the Department of Transitional Assistance will monitor the use of ATMs, spending patterns by clients, and the stores where Electronic Benefits Transfer cards are used over the next 100 days.

If the data suggest a person or a business is violating the rules on what can be legally purchased through the EBT program, the location will be brought to the attention of local police for investigation.

Kyes drew a parallel between the EBT pilot program and the undercover investigations that many police departments use to ensure that liquor stores are not selling to minors.

In Chelsea, he said, his officers have been using a teenager to try to buy liquor in the city’s package stores for some seven years. When that program started, the undercover teenager was sold liquor 50 percent of the time, but now compliance with the law is routinely in the 95 percent range.

A similar strategy could lead to success in halting EBT fraud and misuse, he said, especially once the Department of Transitional Assistance ­directs police to businesses or clients they suspect are breaking the rules.

Moreover, he said, businesses that are already willing to sell alcohol to minors are likely to also ignore EBT rules.

Kyes said one reason he ­endorsed the idea was the hope that if the police-aided crackdown saves the state some money, then perhaps some of the savings will be spent on providing training for police.

In a statement, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said the program is aimed at making sure that clients and retailers comply with the law. The administration has been under fire from Republicans and some Democrats over what they see as an abuse of the EBT system by some recipients.

“We’re giving local law enforce­ment the data and information they need to ensure that clients and retailers are abiding by the law,” Polanowicz said. “This partnership is an important step forward for DTA, and it will help us protect benefits for those who need them as a bridge to stability during tough times.’’

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@
globe.com
. Follow him on
Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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