The easiest part of reforming the Massachusetts State Police will be changing the way the state picks the leader of the law enforcement agency. The hardest — but most important — part will be changing the way the state picks the rank and file at the agency who patrol the state’s highways, investigate major crimes, and police Logan Airport, among other tasks.
With the agency now under a microscope because of a series of scandals and a national movement to reform policing, the Legislature is considering letting the governor pick a colonel from outside the State Police.
That’s a long-overdue reform, and that it’s part of both the House and Senate bills — as well as a police reform bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker — gives it a good shot of passage this year. Forcing the governor to pick from within the ranks, as current law does, makes it more likely that leaders of the State Police will be products of its insular, male-dominated culture, not reformers of that culture.
Other proposals under consideration include establishing a police cadet program to broaden the pool of applicants and new certification and disciplinary procedures. According to the governor’s office, Colonel Christopher Mason, who was appointed in January, has already implemented new training in recognizing and avoiding implicit bias; in public outreach, de-escalation, and crisis communication; and in ethics.
Fine. But those steps won’t solve the underlying problem: a law enforcement agency dominated by white men with similar backgrounds. That takes a willingness to change the civil service rules that keep it that way — for example, the military veterans hiring preference. The points added to a veteran’s test score help explain why the State Police is 87.6 percent white and 95 percent male, according to statistics supplied by Baker’s office. Recruits who graduated from the state police academy were slightly more diverse: 77 percent white and 93 percent male. Veterans certainly deserve support from the state, but given the lack of diversity in the pool of veterans in Massachusetts, that needn’t take the form of a leg up in State Police hiring.
Legislators should also examine whether the State Police have grown more political than is appropriate for a law enforcement agency. State police investigators are assigned to assist district attorneys and the attorney general — creating what Tom Nolan, a visiting professor of sociology at Emmanuel College, and a retired Boston Police lieutenant, calls “a stranglehold” on the political system. Those who are protected by State Police details — like the governor and AG — develop personal friendships and loyalty to the institution. Elected county prosecutors are also protective of their handpicked investigators, and vice versa, bringing officers too close to politics. Meanwhile, a powerful union represents both troopers and trooper-sergeants, an awkward set-up for supervisors who are called upon to discipline underlings.
The State Police are now so burrowed into the political establishment that it’s easy to forget that the agency’s scope and mission has changed before, and could change again. Since the creation of the forerunner of the State Police, in 1865, the agency has gone through different iterations and efforts to rein it in. In 1895, lawmakers repealed the laws that set it up mostly to seize alcohol, and established in its place a small state detective force charged with aiding the attorney general and district attorneys. According to “State Police in the United States: A Socio-Historic Analysis,” by H.K. Bechtel, warnings about the dangers of creating a statewide police apparatus go back a century. In 1919, a prescient report by the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology predicted they would become militaristic and susceptible to corruption.
The most recent significant overhaul happened in 1992, when the Metropolitan District Police, the Registry of Motor Vehicle police, and the Capitol Police merged with the State Police. When that happened, the culture changed to “What’s in it for me versus what’s in it for we?” said Robert F. Long, a retired state detective lieutenant, who was part of an investigative team that captured surveillance footage of Whitey Bulger in the 1980s.
Nearly 30 years after the merger, that certainly describes the culture epitomized by the overtime abuse scandal that resulted in state and federal criminal prosecutions for what is essentially the theft of public funds.
One new leader — even one from the outside — can’t change that on his or her own. The Legislature should also require that troopers and sergeants belong to different unions, to avoid the inherent conflict when the same union represents both. It should depoliticize the State Police by limiting assignments to district attorney offices to short rotations, and cut elected officials out of the choice of which troopers are assigned to their office. And, ultimately, it should change the way the state hires troopers to produce a more diverse and less militarized agency.
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