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Healey faces a ‘critical’ choice in naming next State Police leader: to look inside, or out

In Maura Healey's eight years as attorney general, her criminal bureau worked closely with State Police detectives embedded within the office.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For years, the Massachusetts State Police has churned through superintendents, offering governors multiple chances to name its top leader. But as she prepares to name the department’s third colonel in six years, Governor Maura Healey faces a whole new question: Where to look for one?

Filling the superintendent position is an early test not only of Healey, the state’s former chief law enforcement official, but also of a two-year-old law that now allows the governor — should she choose — to pull the department’s next leader from beyond its ranks.

Colonel Christopher S. Mason’s announcement Friday that he will retire by the end of this week came at a crucial time for the agency, former and current law enforcement officials said. The department has undergone years of internal changes, including instituting a program of body-worn cameras for the first time and eliminating a problematic highway troop. Those moves, and others, came in the wake of a sprawling overtime fraud scandal and a drumbeat of other controversies that have long hobbled the agency.

Healey said Monday that she is “evaluating” her next step, including what process she’ll use to identify the next colonel. But she later indicated in a statement that she would consider those from outside the State Police.


“We are looking for the best possible candidate and will not be limiting our search to within the ranks,” Healey said.

Should she choose an outsider, it would mark a sea change in the department. State law had previously limited candidates to those already employed by the State Police, ensuring a steady and rapid succession of veteran insiders.

Four superintendents spanned former governor Charlie Baker’s eight years in office. His predecessor, Deval Patrick, had three. Each time, a leader stayed for only a few years before retiring and ceding the superintendent role to the next gubernatorial appointee down the ladder — a revolving door that critics say can limit the internal appetite for innovation within the sprawling yet also insular 2,800-person organization.


“It’s good to get an individual from the outside who can bring a new perspective and look at these things as a clean slate, " said Dennis Galvin, a retired State Police major and president of the Mass. Association for Professional Law Enforcement. The top leadership rungs of the department are a “close-knit group and keep their internal issues pretty tight,” Galvin said. But the question, he said, should be how can the department “become more effective and responsive to what the public is looking for?”

“Sometimes if you have an internal feud [over leadership] you become so inwardly directed, you can’t see it,” he said. Healey has a “critical decision. I hope she makes the right pick.”

Repeated scandals within the State Police helped prompt the Legislature to embrace the potential for change in the superintendent’s office. A sweeping policing law that Baker signed on New Year’s Eve in 2020 eliminated a provision that the colonel must be “employed by the department in a rank above the rank of lieutenant.”

Now, a colonel can be chosen from anywhere, as long as they have at least a decade of experience as a full-time sworn law enforcement officer and at least five years of experience in a senior supervisory position within a police force or military body “with law enforcement responsibilities.”


“It’s very important for the governor to be able to appoint the best person to the job. And that person might be an insider, and that person might be an outsider,” said Senator Will Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who helped negotiate the final version of the policing bill. “But if it’s only inside, people tend to sort of line up and set expectations among themselves. It’s much better that there’s an outside option. Whether the governor chooses to exercise it, that’s a different question.”

State Police Colonel Christopher S. Mason is retiring effective Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Healey brings to the question her own experience with the State Police. For eight years as attorney general, her criminal bureau worked closely with State Police detectives embedded within the office, helping execute a variety of criminal cases.

Healey prosecuted three of those charged as part of the State Police’s overtime fraud scandal. But the bulk of the convictions were won by a US attorney’s office that has long been more aggressive in prosecuting public corruption. Healey has defended her approach, calling characterizations she let the State Police off the hook “ridiculous.”

She has personal connections, too. Tara Healey — the governor’s sister and political adviser considered her “eyes and ears” — is partners with Ken Halloran, a lobbyist and former state trooper. Before retiring last year, Halloran was the State Police’s government relations director for 14 years, serving as its “point person” with legislators, their staff, and executive branch agencies, according to a bio posted by the lobbying firm where he’s now partner.


A Healey spokesperson said the governor has not spoken with her sister or Halloran about the pending colonel appointment, nor does she plan to. Halloran did not return a message seeking comment.

The agency’s “fundamental leadership problem” isn’t about the quality of the people within the department, said Kevin Burke, a former lawmaker, district attorney, and secretary of public safety under Patrick. It’s that colonels, he said, often tend to be nearing the end of their State Police careers by the time they’re appointed, making for short stays at the top.

Burke was tapped to investigate the agency following a different scandal, in which top agency officials, including then-superintendent Richard McKeon, had ordered troopers to remove embarrassing details from the arrest report of a judge’s daughter. His 2018 report found that over the previous two decades, colonels had served, on average, less than three years in the department’s top job. McKeon’s replacement, Kerry Gilpin, stepped down after two. Mason will ultimately have served less than 3½ years.

The report’s conclusion: The State Police culture “must be transformed starting with management.”

“The flaw is you get a new guy for 2, or 2½ years, he brings in a new command staff, and understandably their concern is running the place day to day,” Burke said. “But is there a big-picture look at things? Almost never.”

Whom Healey ultimately taps is, to some, a sign of how urgently she views the need for major change within the agency. Under Mason, it won full accreditation by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Council — fulfilling a mandate lawmakers first instituted in 2018. He also was considered by some to be a “stabilizing force” for a department that spent years knocked off-kilter by a string of controversies.


Still, long-running issues remain. The department has faced years of criticism that the predominantly male and white agency permitted a discriminatory workplace culture. A group of troopers last year sued the department, alleging it is illegally discriminating against troopers who take maternity or other types of leave. A state agency in 2020 ruled that a Black state trooper working on the security detail of Patrick was the victim of racial discrimination when he was removed from the team in 2013.

“The next colonel has to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Jeffrey Lopes, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “Whether it’s in [human resources], hiring, and recruitment — whatever it may be — equity should be the priority.”

Healey, as a candidate, vowed to put an “equity lens on everything” in governing, an approach Lopes said gives him hope she will select a colonel who has the same values. “We can’t have someone come in and say, ‘business as usual,’ ” he said.

The selection process is also landing amid a wider national conversation about how police should change their approach to the job. An internal candidate could certainly lead that, but it depends on what Healey and her administration “want a 21st-century state police agency to look like,” said Brenda Bond-Fortier, a Suffolk University professor.

“Yes, the context is definitely ripe for an external leader,” said Bond-Fortier, who specializes in law enforcement organizational change. “But it can’t be an external person if we don’t have that political will in the governor’s office and the office of public safety and security.”

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.