While state lawmakers grapple how to address issues of racism, abuse, and misconduct within the ranks of local police forces, they’ve spent six months ignoring an effort to reform the largest force in the state — and probably the whitest and most male-dominated of them all.
The Massachusetts State Police is some 2,120 strong — 89 percent white and 95 percent male, their top-ranked official told legislators this winter. With their knee-high black boots and dark-blue breeches, the force is the very picture of police militarism. It was also at the center of a scandal involving falsified overtime payments, destroyed records, and a go-along-to-get-along culture that enabled all of that.
Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill last January attempting to reform the force and improve the way it recruited and promoted its officers. Sure, the abuses that had plagued the force were misconduct of a different kind than that being protested in the streets of Boston and around the nation following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. But its record too cried out for change.
But change, absent a crisis, is hard to come by on Beacon Hill. Apparently theft from the taxpayers wasn’t crisis enough. So last week at one of his near daily news conferences Baker, talking about the need for transparency around police issues noted, “As we saw with the State Police issues. . . there needs to be checks and balances.” And he reminded lawmakers about the bill filed six months earlier.
At long last Monday it was moved along to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where it is being “reviewed.”
Taken in light of more recent developments, the bill is modest in its aims, but in a department more hidebound than many local forces, even modest is something. Most critical is the proposal to set up a State Police cadet program — not subject to the civil service laws — that could provide an avenue for the recruitment of women and minorities. It would also eliminate oral interviews as part of the scoring system for promotion to lieutenant and captain. The hope is, according to the governor’s filing statement, to “exclude unintended, subjective considerations.”
It would also for the first time allow the governor to appoint the State Police “colonel” — the head of the force — from outside its ranks, albeit with 10 years of experience as a full-time law enforcement officer and at least five years in a “senior administrative or supervisory position in a police force or a military body with law enforcement responsibilities.”
Even that change ran into opposition from the union that represents uniformed officers.
There was a time, however, when the State Police had a civilian commissioner to whom the colonel was answerable, offering lawmakers who might want to improve the bill a possible back-to-the-future idea.
And, of course, the legislation proposes a much-needed streamlining of the disciplinary process, which takes on added importance as the nation confronts issues of racial justice in policing.
No, this is no longer about greed and false records. But it is still about what Public Safety Secretary Thomas Turco called “an insular culture” with “too few measures and tools of accountability.”
All of which demands change — but not all of which is in the hands of the Legislature. This is an agency, after all, that while largely in the highway patrol business still does not have dash cams. Body cameras are still only part of a pilot program, even as other forces in the state have adopted them more widely because of their potential to resolve conflicting accounts between police officers and citizens.
The Baker administration and the Legislature working together could not only reform a police force badly in need of a reputation makeover, but also bring this sclerotic institution into the current century. It’s about time.
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