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EDITORIAL

‘Civilianizing’ police details can be win-win

Thousands of requests go unfilled even as BPD maintains a stranglehold on those lucrative gigs.

A police officer stands at the construction site of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Boston, July 2017.
A police officer stands at the construction site of the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Boston, July 2017.Keith Bedford

For decades, Boston Police have maintained a monopoly on lucrative paid details — supervising traffic around construction projects and utility work, and even providing crowd control around the occasional film shoot. But like many issues around policing, paid details are also getting a second look — and in Boston, the timing couldn’t be better.

The untold story of those paid details around Boston is that there are more than twice as many requests as there are officers able and willing to take the assignments. And amid demands to “civilianize” the police, that should make sharing the wealth easy. Well, it would be easy if it weren’t for a police contract that has thus far guaranteed a BPD monopoly on details, many of which are legally required.

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But where there’s a political will, there’s a way, and with the imminent change of administrations, a pilot program could be the way to go. Incoming acting mayor Kim Janey and the City Council should make it happen.

It was, after all, the council that unearthed the astonishing factoid that more than half the requests for police details go begging. According to a presentation made to the council last November by the BPD’s Bureau of Administration and Technology, between January and October of 2020, some 23,856 paid details were assigned to members of the force, leaving another 26,410 detail requests unfilled.

Taxpayers don’t shell out directly for paid details, but that doesn’t make them free. Developers and utility companies pass on the costs to consumers — just one ingredient in the state’s high cost of living. But until the state reforms the laws requiring such high-cost details, the least the city can do is open up the work.

“Obviously that strikes many of us on the council as an opportunity for good civilian jobs,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok. “It could be a win-win.”

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Paid details are indeed big business. Last year, a relatively slow one for the department, 1,382 members of the force split some $23.4 million in private detail work — averaging about $17,000 per officer, according to figures supplied by the department. But a few have done considerably better than average, like Detective Lee Waiman, who made over $115,000 that year in detail pay, and Sergeant Detective Mark Vickers, who earned over $91,000.

The going hourly rate ranges from $46 to $60, depending on rank, for a minimum of four hours (anything beyond four hours is automatically billed as eight hours).

And while the city collects a 10 percent administration fee from the private companies paying for those details, there is a body of evidence that the program doesn’t pay for itself. The detail system costs more than $3.7 million a year to run, representing the salaries of 32 officers ($3.4 million) and five civilians ($337,853) who run it. But last year, only $2.7 million was collected in administrative fees. And the department reported another $1.3 million in uncollected fees and detail costs since 2016 — all of that covered by the city. No cop ever went unpaid, even if the city never collected — that too is a contract rule.

Efforts to reform the system go back to at least 2008, when Massachusetts became the very last state in the nation to permit the use of civilian flaggers on some construction and highway projects. It was then that the Boston Municipal Research Bureau suggested giving the police commissioner discretion to decide when to use paid police details and when to use civilian flaggers.

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Flash forward 12 years and the issue is still with us, still unresolved, but now, as Bok put it, “part of a broader conversation about civilianizing police work” and doing it in the context of racial and economic equity.

It was among the issues raised by Families for Justice and Healing, which took due note of that 2008 law and the fact that some 20 percent of assigned details are for work being done in Dorchester in Roxbury.

Those details — if civilianized — represent, the equivalent of between 210 and 280 jobs, the group said, adding, “Details staffed by residents who take pride in their own neighborhood and know their neighborhoods will enhance public safety.”

The good news is this doesn’t have to be either/or. Judging from those stunning figures produced by the BPD, there is more than enough work to go around. And there are several flagger certification training programs in the state, including one at Umass Amherst, that could help train community members for the work.

But with the next union contracts still very much a work in progress — or non-progress, as union officials play a waiting game until the next mayor is elected — the time is right to push the envelope just a little with a pilot program on those unclaimed details. After all, isn’t that what a frustrated Mayor Marty Walsh did with police body cameras?

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Good jobs at good wages are going begging right now. They shouldn’t, certainly not at a time like this. It’s time for a little innovation and a lot of political will.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.