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Spotlight: 1985

Police eager to boost their pay joined this program in droves. But there was a problem

Acting on a tip, Spotlight reporters discovered that a degree program costing taxpayers $12 million a year had shockingly low standards.

A clipping of the Boston Globe front page featuring the Spotlight Team's investigation of the Quinn Bill program that paid police officers for getting college degrees. Headline says, "$12m a year for loosely run program to educate police."
Staff

Spotlight Team: Stephen A. Kurkjian (editor), Daniel Golden, and M.E. Malone


It was Christmas Eve 1984 when reporter Daniel Golden’s phone rang. The caller said he was the chief financial officer of a mid-sized Massachusetts city and faced a budget disaster.

Under a 1970 state law known as the Quinn Bill, which created the Police Pay Initiative Program (now Police Career Incentive Pay Program), police officers could boost their salaries by up to 30 percent by obtaining an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in criminal justice. The caller said half of his city’s officers had earned degrees from Anna Maria College. It was severely straining his payroll, and no one was making sure the education was worthwhile.

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More reporting revealed that the issue went far beyond one municipality and one small liberal arts college in Paxton. By the time the five-part series began appearing in 1985, Massachusetts taxpayers were spending $12 million a year – $75 million total to that point — on increased salaries, tuition payments, and other costs for a program with no oversight or uniform academic standards. Its pay incentives were the nation’s most generous, too, with nearly 120 towns participating. Yet, if the system was being gamed, how could that be documented?

Legally, reporters could not attend classes posing as police officers. But Golden could visit a class posing as a security guard with higher career aspirations. (Such undercover reporting in the public interest was relatively common at the time.)

The class, run by Northeastern University, was taught in Brockton by a local police officer. Golden told the instructor he “wasn’t a very good student” and worried the course might be too difficult. The conversation, as Golden recalls it, went something like this:

Instructor: Don’t worry. The final test is 20 questions, multiple choice.

Golden: I’m not really good with multiple choice, either.

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Instructor: No problem. I’ll give you 18 of the answers tonight.

For certification, a course required at least 10 enrolled students. Golden counted four in the room. Later, he glanced at the attendance sheet: It listed nearly 20 names, all marked “present.”

Spotlight reporters uncovered many such dubious practices during their three-month investigation. They examined three institutions closely: Northeastern, whose law enforcement program was unrelated to its School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; New Hampshire College in Hooksett (where the criminal justice program had no full-time faculty trained in the discipline); and Anna Maria, which had awarded 549 of the 849 master’s degrees under the police pay program.

Some of the impact was immediate — then-Governor Michael Dukakis ordered a review of the program, and Northeastern suspended four instructors — but other improvements took years. In 2003, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent, nonpartisan research organization, questioned the worth of these so-called cop shops, pointing out in a report that “no standards existed for curriculum, instructor certification, attendance, or course requirements” beyond what each school set for itself. Later that year, the Commonwealth approved new standards: no more academic credit for “life experiences,” for example, and teaching faculty would now need more relevant academic credentials.

The Spotlight series “brought a compelling case for change and reform [when] there was no appetite for public officials to make changes on their own,” says Elaine Beattie, a senior strategic adviser who joined the Boston Municipal Research Bureau in 1985. “It put the issues out there, and that’s an important part of making public policy.”

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