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EDITORIAL

Battle lines drawn in council’s quest for civilian flaggers

How long will greed and stubbornness prevail over a common sense solution?

A police officer stood at the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge construction site in Boston on July 31, 2017.Keith Bedford

The fault lines are as deep and as clear as those bright yellow highway stripes: On the one side Boston police are fighting to hang on to every last paid detail assignment on the city’s streets. On the other a new wave of political officials and social justice advocates are eager to spread the wealth — to let civilians in on those lucrative jobs that have long been the monopoly of uniformed police.

The irony is that there’s more than enough work to go around — more than enough construction sites, utility digs, maybe even the occasional film production gig. In fact, anywhere from 35 percent to nearly half of all of those requested private detail assignments go begging each year — unfilled because there just aren’t enough cops to fill them.

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And still the fight goes on and on, most recently breaking into something approaching a pitched battle last week at a committee meeting of the Boston City Council. Larry Calderone, head of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, defended the existing system at such length that several councilors left the room after he refused to stop reading from his prepared statement.

“This proposal will demolish a highly successful program that exists today,” Calderone insisted, referring to a proposed change in the system. “Public safety details have documented proof of providing immediate responses to crimes, medical issues, traffic safety, and violence.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Boston police Superintendent Marcus Eddings, who told the committee that the detail system puts 300-plus uniformed patrolmen on the streets of Boston each day at no cost to the city — their wages paid instead by the firm whose project they are assigned to direct traffic around or watch over.

He added that at $46 a hour, patrolmen represented a relative bargain over civilian flaggers who under a 2008 state law would have to be paid $50.42 an hour. What he didn’t say was that the hourly rate for police actually ranges from $46 to $60 an hour, depending on rank, for a minimum of four hours. Going over that four-hour minimum by a matter of minutes is automatically billed as eight hours.

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And as Councilor Kenzie Bok noted at the hearing, “There is a cost [to the city] to running the detail assignment system,” and the 10 percent add-on the police department gets from its paying customers may be, at best, a wash some years, but some years not. There have been instances of “bad actors” who simply don’t pay their bills.

Last year the department put the figure of “uncollectibles” at $1.3 million dating back to 2016. The city has to pay the officers anyway.

In total last year Boston police shared in some $24.5 million in private detail money — with some officers collecting tens of thousands of dollars and one top earner pulling in more than $123,000 over and above his regular salary.

Police details do raise costs for construction and utility work — costs that are ultimately passed on to consumers and ratepayers. The more comprehensive reform would be to require flaggers on fewer projects, let civilians do the work, and then let the market dictate salaries. But that’s not even on the table.

Rather, the intention of a number of council members, led by Bok and Kendra Lara, is to create an office of civilian flaggers to pick up those jobs that police can’t fill.

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“We just can’t get into a routine where 30, 40, 50 percent of these jobs go unfilled,” Bok said at the hearing.

“If you subtract the average construction detail pay from the average total pay among officers who work details, these officers are still making over $150,000 a year,” Mallory Hanora of Families for Justice as Healing told the councilors. “Icing on the cake for cops could be food on the table for more families.”

Getting there is the hard part, because getting there requires changing the city’s contracts with its police unions, which expired in June 2020. And to hear the BPPA’s Calderone tell it, current contract talks are at an impasse — a point disputed by City Hall.

“I do think there’s a way to talk through this,” Bok noted at the hearing.

She’s right, but that talking has to happen at the collective bargaining table. When she was running for the office, Mayor Michelle Wu pledged to bring “meaningful change” to policing in Boston, which she contended has “been hindered by provisions in the collective bargaining agreement.”

Her analysis was spot on. The contract is where change needs to happen. That includes a change to a system that can put 300 private detail police on the street and also provide good jobs at very good wages to hundreds of civilians. Stubbornness and greed shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of that kind of overdue reform.

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