Amen. Hallelujah. It’s about time.
Governor Charlie Baker is finally getting behind much-needed change for the scandal-plagued State Police force. Now he needs to convince the Legislature, which has been even more hesitant to consider reform, to get on board.
At a recent news conference at the State Police Academy, Baker said: “The current statutes governing the Mass. State Police are out of date and out of step with what is required to run an effective department today.” He followed up those welcome, if long-overdue, words with a bill, “Advancing Reform Within the Massachusetts State Police.” Most importantly, the bill would remove the current requirement that the governor must choose a State Police leader from within the department. While Baker has signaled openness to that reform before, this is the first time he has put the currency of the governor’s office behind a law that would actually do it.
The legislation is absolutely key to changing the status quo. Over time, the legislated leadership restriction produced an insular agency, unwilling or unable to police itself. While there are many good and ethical troopers in the State Police, a slew of bad actors became ensnared in a federal corruption probe involving falsified overtime payments. On the watch of now-retired Colonel Kerry Gilpin, who was chosen by Baker to set things straight, the agency destroyed records that could have helped prosecutors uncover more abuse. Colonel Christopher S. Mason — Gilpin’s replacement — is now promising to overhaul State Police culture and has taken some steps to do that. But every governor should have the option to pick the most independent and best-qualified candidate for the job, and that means opening up the hiring process to outsiders.
Baker’s bill would also streamline the process for taking administrative action to suspend officers without pay when they are charged with serious offenses and simplify the disciplinary process; create a new fraudulent-pay statute that will allow state and municipal agencies to recover triple damages from police officers who knowingly submit false claims; authorize the creation of a cadet program as an alternative route to the State Police Academy in order to diversify the pool of recruits; and eliminate the oral interview from the formula that determines scoring for promotion in order to reduce the potential for subjectivity or bias.
The question now is how much political capital Baker devotes to his proposal on Beacon Hill. From lawmakers to the attorney general, there’s been a notable lack of interest in policing the well-connected agency. Baker did not mention his State Police reform proposals in last week’s State of the Commonwealth address, instead focusing on the MBTA and climate change. Those are, of course, important issues. But so is restoring public trust and confidence in the state’s highest law enforcement agency, and that mission should not get lost in Baker’s 2020 to-do list — or the Legislature’s.
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