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Baker calls for training bonuses for police amid defunding debate

Governor Charlie Baker last week discussed a bill on policing reform.  At right is Representative Carlos Gonzalez.
Governor Charlie Baker last week discussed a bill on policing reform. At right is Representative Carlos Gonzalez.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Tucked into a sweeping police accountability bill Governor Charlie Baker released last week was a proposal that surprised even some law enforcement leaders: a system of one-time bonuses up to $5,000 for police officers who go beyond the state’s required training.

Hailed by some as a sensible way to coax police into advanced coursework, the proposed language also is seemingly at odds with the demands of protesters, activists, and legislators now coursing through the halls of government.

Amid a nationwide reckoning with police brutality and racism, advocates and some elected officials have called on cities and towns to pour less, not more, money into police department budgets, and shift the funding toward public health, violence prevention, and other programs.

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Baker’s legislation, which would create a new certification system for police, does not specifically dedicate more state money toward training or create a separate fund for the bonuses themselves. Instead, it leaves it up to municipal departments to cover the costs for their officers, while the state would pay for incentives for State Police troopers.

But it immediately called to mind for some the construct of the controversial Quinn Bill, a 1970s law that boosts the salaries of officers who have received college degrees. State funding for the law was slashed roughly a decade ago, and a high court ruling in 2012 said municipalities are not obligated to pay the state’s share.

“Training should be part of the job. But it shouldn’t be a separate basis for payment,” said Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who called Baker’s overall policing bill a “welcome step” but is among those pushing to slice money from police budgets.

“I don’t think we want to be in a situation of what the Quinn Bill became, which is an unfunded mandate,” she said. “What isn’t needed is more money pouring into these departments.”

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Baker’s proposal would make officers eligible for a bonus “for exceeding the [state’s] minimum training requirements,” which currently stand at 40 hours each year for municipal officers. The state’s mandatory courses most recently included animal investigations, legal updates, defensive tactics, and annual firearms training.

The bonuses would work on a scale, from $1,000 up to $5,000, and could be awarded for “advanced” courses for deescalation techniques, bias-free policing, narcotics training, or learning a language “relevant to police work,” among others identified by the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee. The incentives would be capped at one bonus per officer, per year, Baker’s office said.

A sweeping 2018 criminal justice law already mandated that the Municipal Police Training Committee incorporate bias-free policing and deescalation techniques into annual in-service training. Dan Zivkovich, who left the committee last year after a decade as its executive director, said basic training on those concepts had been offered for years. .

But Zivkovich said in reading Baker’s proposal, he envisions officers taking intensive, week-long courses that go beyond one-day classes offered by other departments or the FBI in order to qualify for extra pay.

“This would be something that would be very intense and very high-level,” Zivkovich said.

Baker has already staked out ground against “defunding” police and said this month that public officials should not “get out of the business of providing public safety to our communities. I don’t support defunding the police.”

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When he unveiled the legislation Wednesday, he said the thrust of the bill was, in part, to “be aspirational about the way we think about training,” while allowing state officials to pull the certifications of problem officers.

“Skill development in areas such as deescalation, foreign language proficiency, and bias-free policing are crucial,” Maura Driscoll, a Baker spokeswoman, said in a statement. “In turn, [that training] will benefit municipalities and yield higher caliber public safety officials.”

The bonus proposal was nevertheless unexpected even among its supporters.

“We did not know that was coming,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. He nodded to the Quinn Bill and its benefits that “I wish we had back — that co-mingling in an educational environment.”

But should it survive the legislative process he acknowledged it would face real fiscal hurdles. The coronavirus pandemic has quickly eaten away at state and municipal coffers, upending budget projections and, officials expect, spending across a range of public services.

Whether cash-strapped towns and cities could then begin covering new bonus payments is an open question. (Baker’s office did not provide an estimate on what the incentives could collectively cost.)

“Conceptually, we think it’s a great idea,” Leahy said. “Practically, we will have to see how it fits.”

It also remains to be seen what type of political support the bonus concept draws. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, which worked with Baker on his bill, have already voiced support for the concept of creating a state certification system for officers, who could then lose their licenses for a range of misconduct.

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But the training incentives were the governor’s idea, not the caucus’s, said state Representative Russell E. Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who was heavily involved in discussions.

Among “the excesses we’re seeing are in overtime,” Holmes said, pointing to a Globe report of how Boston Police overtime spending had jumped 84 percent over the last decade. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, for example, has said he plans to reroute $12 million in police overtime spending — 20 percent of the department’s overtime budget — toward other programs, a move activists and city councilors called a start.

The proposed bonus amount, Holmes said, “was not very large” relatively speaking, and the caucus advocated that the incentives go “toward things that we think are most important,” such as deescalation and bias-free policing.

“But,” he said, “it wasn’t something that was one of the major priorities of the caucus.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout