Safe Street teams, the community policing program that has been credited with reducing crime in Boston over the last several years, could cease to exist if the City Council accepts an arbitrator’s award that would give police a sizable pay hike and make other changes to department policy, city officials say.
Proposed alterations to the way members of those teams are selected could limit their opportunities for overtime pay and prompt them to quit the 14 units, officials say. Officers assigned to the teams walk and bike through the city’s roughest neighborhoods to form relationships with business owners, community leaders, and residents.
“This effectively will end the Safe Street teams,” Paul Curran, the municipal director of labor relations, told the City Council during a hearing on the patrolmen’s award. “The way this arbitration award was written, [officers] will not stay.”
Union officials scoffed at the assertion, saying they support the Safe Street teams and it was the city that had requested the change on how these officers are assigned.
“The city said they wanted [to] pick from anybody and now they can,” said Susan Horwitz, a lawyer for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association the day after the hearing. “This whole sort of doomsday thing really doesn’t make a lot of sense. The city has no idea how it’s going to work yet.”
The concerns about the future of the Safe Street teams are another reason Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration said the council should reject the arbitrator’s award. Menino has already decried the size of the award, a 25 percent pay increase over six years. The city estimates the increase would cost $87 million.
The dispute over Safe Street began during contract negotiations, when the city asked to centralize the teams, which now operate out of the department’s 11 districts. Centralizing the units would allow the police commissioner or one of his commanders to choose team members from among the entire force.
Currently, police commanders must pick officers in each district based on seniority. That limits the department’s ability to place officers with special skills — such as fluency in other languages — on the teams.
“My view on this is that a walking route in a troubled neighborhood is the most important assignment we have and we should have our best people there,” Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said.
The city, however, requested that the shift to centralized operations not affect these officers’ ability to earn overtime and detail pay, which currently come out of the districts they patrol. District officers traditionally get first choice of those details, which are usually the most desirable because they have more hours and higher pay, such as monitoring construction sites, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the system.
The assignments that are not immediately chosen are put into a pool for officers who work in centralized squads, including the gang and motorcycle units — and, if the council votes to approve funding for the award, the Safe Street teams.
The union countered that if the Safe Street teams are centralized, then the officers on the teams should no longer be eligible for detail and overtime assignments from their districts. Horwitz said centralized Safe Street teams should be treated the same as the other centralized units.
“That’s the basic model,” Horwitz said, adding there will be plenty of overtime opportunities left under the new award. “The idea is that district officers are assigned to a district and it’s appropriate for those to be the individuals to have the first opportunity for [details].”
The arbitrator agreed to make all officers in the department eligible for spots on the Safe Street teams but sided with the union on the issue of extra pay.
Davis said he doesn’t think the switch would necessarily spell the end of the teams but worries that the proposed changes in supplemental pay could harm their integrity.
The goal — to have officers form deep, long-lasting connections in the neighborhood they patrol — could be compromised if officers want to transfer out to units with more overtime and detail pay opportunities, he said.
City and police department officials said gang unit officers make more arrests than Safe Street officers, who are urged to prioritize building trust in the community. That means gang unit officers are more often in court for hearings, another avenue for overtime pay. The gang and motorcycle units are also seen as more elite squads. Officers have sometimes scoffed at the Safe Street teams, complaining that they do not perform real police work, according to several law enforcement officials.
Davis, who created the teams when he became commissioner in 2006, acknowledged that it has taken time for the Safe Street teams to be accepted by the rank and file.
“I think that’s more of a cultural issue in the police organization,” he said. “I found that the men and women who work in the Safe Street teams really enjoy it but it’s not focused on arrests. . . . As time goes on, it’s more beneficial to the community not to be making a lot of arrests.”
Horwitz said officers will still want to join a unit that has been seen as instrumental in fighting crime.
“It’s a successful unit,” she said. “They’re sent to the parts of the city that are going through the most intense need for police. I would think that a cop would want to be there.”
Many neighborhood leaders have embraced the teams, which have grown from three units to 14 since they were introduced.
“They’re near and dear to my heart,” said Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents District 7, during the hearing. “This is a problem.”