Can the state auditor’s office — since its inception four decades ago, a repository for reports that line State House bookshelves unread — become a vehicle for social change?
That’s the hope of Chris Dempsey, one of the aspirants to succeed retiring Auditor Suzanne Bump.
Dempsey first came to public attention as one of the driving forces (along with Kelley Gossett and Liam Kerr, famously derided as “10 people on Twitter”) behind No Boston Olympics 2024. Their underdog group successfully torpedoed Boston’s ill-fated bid to throw away billions of dollars hosting the 2024 Summer Games. Dempsey also served a stint in the Deval Patrick administration, trying to bring the Transportation Department into the 21st century.
Now he is running for the Democratic nomination for state auditor, running against state Senator Diana DiZoglio of Methuen.
As an example of the type of agenda he would pursue, Dempsey has turned his attention to a spectacularly troubled agency: the Massachusetts State Police.
The State Police are still dealing with a long-running overtime scandal that has led to multiple indictments. But — as if that weren’t bad enough — it also faces the criticisms common to every law enforcement agency in this era: that it hadn’t done nearly enough to address decadeslong issues of biased policing.
The issues with the State Police don’t end there, either. The department has been sued multiple times for internal racial bias and gender bias. Reporting has shown that some officers abuse their access to internal information (by looking up criminal records of potential dates, for example). I could go on listing its well-documented issues, but you get the idea.
Although Beacon Hill has theoretical oversight over the agency — the largest Police Department in New England — reform has come at a glacial pace, if at all. Frequent turnover at the top of the organization has only strengthened the hand of unions and other status quo-diehards who have not been, shall we say, unequivocally committed to doing better.
As one of Dempsey’s proposals out the gate, he is proposing a thorough review of nearly everything about the way the State Police operates as an agency — from overtime records to training to racial disparities in traffic stops and arrests to HR policies.
It’s a strikingly timely idea, and would be an expansive use of the historically limited scope of the auditor’s office.
Dempsey insists that the auditor can help propel change inside the State House.
“The auditor can play a critical role working with others on Beacon Hill,” he said. “The auditor has the authority to review the books and the auditor has an independence that I think is important.”
When I say that Dempsey is taking a broader view of the office, that is not to deride the previous auditors, Joe DeNucci and Bump. But it isn’t a role that inherently comes with a lot of influence, or whose powers have been this aggressively deployed.
But Dempsey’s Olympics history suggests that he has a talent for generating attention and moving the needle on public opinion. And he is a diehard policy wonk with a sense of how agencies work, or don’t.
Of the auditor’s office, he offered: “I think it has two important functions: making state government work effectively from the inside and standing up for public interests. I’ve had the opportunity to do both in my career. No Boston Olympics was all about standing up for the public interest. And people rallied to our cause.”
No Boston Olympics was a victory of activists over the city’s entrenched power structure, whose dreams of gaining international stature ultimately came undone, largely because of the limited public benefit of the Games and their ruinous price tag.
Pushing for reform inside state government, with a focus on sclerotic entities like the State Police, is a different fight altogether. But there isn’t much question that it’s ripe for reform, and the more voices in that conversation, the better.
State government is headed for new leadership. And with that should come a fresh look at the issues and problems that have been accepted for too long as business as usual.
The State Police is a perfect example of the price of Beacon Hill inertia. Any push to change that fact of our common life is urgently welcome.