Facebook, Wells Fargo, Uber, and . . . the Massachusetts State Police?
Yes, just like those companies, the Staties’ reputation has taken a beating.
These days, when you see a trooper on the Mass. Pike or at Logan Airport, what comes to mind? Most likely overtime fraud and phony speeding tickets, or superior officers forcing troopers to rewrite a police report as a favor to a judge, or last week’s arrest of the former president of the State Police union on federal conspiracy and obstruction charges.
It’s an unfortunate undoing for the proud law enforcement agency. Despite promises 16 months ago to work to earn back the public’s trust, Governor Charlie Baker and State Police Colonel Kerry A. Gilpin are still trying to repair the damage caused by bad actors, poor management, and a dated and dysfunctional culture.
Which raises the question: What more can they do, as they say in public relations, to change the narrative?
“This is a classic example of when the best PR is substantive reform — and no different from what corporations that find themselves in trouble regularly do,” said Geri Denterlein, founder and CEO of her eponymous public relations and crisis communications firm in Boston.
While there are significant differences between a police force and a corporation, many of the strategies for restoring luster to a tarnished brand are as relevant to the State Police as they are to Facebook. The problem, as with so many attempts at institutional reform, is execution.
1. The first step after a crisis is to investigate what went wrong and why, and to make the findings available to the public.
Former secretary of public safety Kevin P. Burke reviewed the incident in which Colonel Richard McKeon, Gilpin’s predecessor, was accused of trying to suppress embarrassing information on the arrest of Alli Bibaud, the daughter of a Worcester judge. Burke, who was brought in by Gilpin, said in his public report that the culture of the State Police “must be transformed, starting with management,” and pressed the agency to “assist in the development and implementation of new leadership standards.”
Separately, Kathleen M. O’Toole, a former Boston Police commissioner who also served in State Police leadership, was named a pro bono consultant in July 2018 to assist Gilpin with recruiting, diversity, and training.
“Those are all first steps that you take,” Denterlein said. But she says we should ask: “What’s been done with the Burke report? What are O’Toole’s findings and recommendations? Was the scope of their review sufficiently broad? And were there actually action plans and steps for measurement put into place?”
There may be good answers to these questions, but the State Police aren’t offering a lot of detail.
“Recommendations made by former Secretary Burke are being implemented, including increased training among all Department members in the areas of detecting motorists under the influence of drugs and utilization of drug recognition experts,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said in an e-mail.
Full transparency, notes Denterlein, is essential to rebuilding trust.
“Department members seek to earn the trust of the citizens we serve every day through the thousands of interactions conducted with professionalism, compassion, and courtesy,” Procopio said.
2. After the fact-finding, an organization must ensure that wrongdoers are held accountable.
Forty-six troopers have been implicated in the phony ticket/OT scandal, including eight who have pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
Last week, Dana Pullman, the former president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, was arrested on charges that he stole from the union, which represents 1,900 troopers. Anne Lynch, a lobbyist for the union, was charged with paying kickbacks to Pullman.
In November 2017, McKeon and his second in command retired following revelations in the Bibaud case. After an investigation, Attorney General Maura Healey declined to seek criminal charges.
In these instances, it’s been up to prosecutors to assess culpability and mete out punishment. That’s not a shortcoming of the State Police, but it leaves Gilpin looking passive. That’s why any post-crisis plan must include new policies and procedures designed to prevent the same mistakes from being made again.
3. When it comes to overhauling operations, the results have been mixed and the pace slow, as my Globe colleague Matt Rocheleau reported in April. Troop E, which was at the center of the OT mess, has been disbanded, a regular shift check-in policy has been implemented, and a GPS tracking system installed in some 2,700 vehicles.
But initiatives to begin monitoring those GPS trackers and equip troopers with body cameras were slow to get going amid negotiations with the union. About 100 troopers have been testing body cameras in a trial that will wrap up in September. About 1,000 cruisers are being tracked by GPS.
In his story, Rocheleau catalogued other unfinished business: “The agency, citing ongoing criminal investigations, has not released audits of top-paid troopers, despite promises to publish the material quarterly. It also has failed to resolve a longstanding jurisdiction dispute with Boston police over patrols in the city’s Seaport District. . . . Throughout, the State Police have repeatedly flouted the state’s public records law, including withholding internal audits Gilpin authored.”
To be fair, making meaningful change takes time.
“How do you do it? You have to be morally introspective, come up with best practices, and walk the talk,” said John Fisher, who teaches marketing at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “It’s not easy. You can’t fix it tomorrow.”
Still, Fisher noted, “the core essence of any brand is trust.”
4. The State Police have not fully restored trust. And it won’t happen until it takes the most difficult step of all: changing the insular culture.
“You have to take them from a paramilitary organization to one that does community policing,” said George Regan, who runs Regan Communications in Boston and cofounded Friends of the Boston Police, a group that is raising funds for initiatives like new officer dress uniforms and restoring the mounted police unit. “It starts with boot camp” that’s like the Marines, he said. “They don’t teach them at all about how to deal with people.”
Procopio defended the agency’s training. “The rigor of that training is necessary for preparing men and women for the unique mission of a Massachusetts State Trooper.”
And I know this isn’t just me, but it wouldn’t hurt to update some of the uniforms. The britches tucked into jackboots? That’s more war officer than peacemaker, to paraphrase the late singer Junior Murvin.
Another issue: Sergeants are in the same union as they troopers they supervise. That makes stricter supervision and accountability problematic. The union would fight separating them.
The union has made several changes under Sergeant Mark Lynch, who took over from Pullman as president in October. But his membership is in revolt, saying he doesn’t fight hard enough for them, and may vote him out of office next month.
5. Finally, new leadership is needed.
“From a perception point of view, there perhaps needs to be a new face for the public to see; someone with credibility and integrity who can speak for, and to, both the troopers and the public and isn’t concerned with old boy protectionism,” said Doug Bailey, a senior vice president at strategic communications firm Rasky Partners in Boston. “This person might even take on an ombudsman kind of role.”
Others say Gilpin needs to step aside. It’s not a knock on her skills, and she has support within the administration and among troopers. But it’s time to bring in someone new with fresh eyes and ideas. This will require action on Beacon Hill because there is a law requiring that the State Police colonel come from inside the agency and have held the rank above lieutenant before being put in charge. “They have to make substantial change,” Regan said. “And it has to start at the top.”