Senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank; Needham resident
The use of civilian flaggers is an idea whose time has come in Massachusetts, and the state can and should do more to make it happen. Having off-duty police officers direct traffic at all road construction sites is simply unnecessary and exorbitantly expensive for cities and towns. The savings from using more civilians at road construction sites represents low-hanging fruit.
But capturing those savings will require the help of the state through the adoption of some common-sense reforms.
Massachusetts was for a long time the only state to require that police officers be present at road construction sites. A 2008 state law changed that, but as the Pioneer Institute detailed in a 2018 report, the law maintained most of the drawbacks of the old approach and hasn’t saved municipalities much money.
First, the law does not require cities and towns to use civilian flaggers on low-traffic sites. Second, the civilian flaggers are subject to Massachusetts’ unusual prevailing wage law, which establishes pay rates for public construction projects.
As we pointed out in our 2018 report, most states with prevailing wage laws use both market wage rates and union collective bargaining agreements to set the wage. But Massachusetts is one of only five states that tie the rate to the highest collectively bargained rate in the area – even though only 21 percent of the Commonwealth’s construction workforce chooses to join a union.
The law creates a Catch-22. Requiring wages to be pegged to the highest collectively bargained rate means that civilian flagger wages are effectively based on the rate paid to police for performing flagger duties. As a result, the hourly wage for civilian flaggers in Massachusetts was $43.44 as of 2018, compared to an average of $23.58 in the five other New England states.
Not surprisingly, the 2008 law resulted in savings of just $23 million over its first three years. And the only reason it achieved any savings was because of provisions specific to police flaggers requiring them to be paid for a minimum of four or eight hours, even if they don’t actually work that long.
Given minimal savings and the outcry from powerful police unions when municipalities try to use civilian flaggers, it’s no surprise that few local officials bother.
Retired Walpole deputy police chief; adjunct professor of criminal justice at MassBay Community College, Purdue University Global, and Hillsborough Community College
There has never been a more challenging time to be a police officer than there is today. Reducing the ability to work details at construction sites would only add to the existing difficulty of recruiting and retaining quality police officers. The number of applicants has decreased steadily and replacing sworn officers with civilian flaggers at construction sites will only exacerbate the problem.
I understand though disagree with the argument for replacing police officers with civilian flaggers and also recognize the political constraints to doing so. The strength of police unions has been the main stumbling block for change. I am also aware of the criticism from the public that detail officers sometimes spend more time on their cellphones, sitting in their cars, or gazing at the construction work in the trenches than they do directing traffic, and how this adds fuel to the cry for civilian flaggers. I have been guilty of this myself working police details in the past, and now advise officers that we are not helping our argument for retaining sworn officers at construction sites if people perceive that we are not focusing our attention on the traffic.
But all that said, shifting to civilian flaggers would result in minimal savings since under the state’s prevailing wage law, civilians are effectively paid the same rate as police officers. And the impact on public safety would be significant.
Said Sir Robert Peel, founder of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829, the measure of an effective police department is not how many arrests it makes, but the absence of crime in the community. And although difficult to measure, it stands to reason that seeing armed police officers with radios along the roadways significantly reduces crime. If replaced with civilian flaggers, hundreds of police officers would be removed from our streets every day.
Unlike civilian flaggers, sworn police officers at construction sites have the power of arrest. Often detail officers will lend assistance after hearing of nearby officers needing backup, or a dispatch broadcast of a wanted motor vehicle. Recently a Newton officer working a detail responded with other officers to an attempted suicide, helping save a life. Civilian flaggers can do nothing more than spin the “slow/stop” sign they hope motorists obey.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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