Governor Charlie Baker is declining to address alleged discrimination and harassment within the barracks of the Massachusetts State Police, as an effort to increase oversight of law enforcement officers is drawing attention on Beacon Hill.
Baker, in an interview Monday, said it is difficult to discuss questions “that are being litigated,” and touted the State Police’s efforts to diversify its overwhelmingly white and male force of about 2,200 sworn officers.
“There’s no room for discrimination of any kind anywhere,” said Baker when asked whether the complaints, documented in a Globe investigation Sunday, reflect a more widespread problem with the workplace culture inside the State Police.
A proposal in the Legislature, being studied by a state task force, would install a state licensing program for all Massachusetts police officers, a step that could boost transparency and accountability in cases where police are accused of misconduct. Massachusetts is one of only five states with no authority to revoke police officers’ licenses.
At least 10 current and former troopers and recruits have filed lawsuits in recent years, the Globe reported. Records requests showed at least 50 complaints against the State Police at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and about 80 complaints or reports of harassment filed with the internal State Police unit that investigates harassment inside the department.
In lawsuits, several female troopers said they were passed over for promotions and subject to sexual harassment and physical intimidation; minority troopers said they were subjected to racist remarks and treated differently from white colleagues.
A State Police spokesman said about half of the discrimination commission complaints had been dismissed or otherwise resolved in the department’s favor, and legal filings by the state largely denied the allegations.
The State Police is considerably less diverse than the general population of Massachusetts, though that is true in state police forces all over the country, statistics show. But nearly 30 percent of the applicants who will take the civil service exam next month to compete for jobs in the State Police are nonwhite, far greater than the 11 percent minority makeup of the current force.
“I think we all believe that law enforcement should reflect the character of the communities that it serves and represents, and we have work to do there,” Baker said.
State Representative Russell Holmes, a Democrat from Mattapan, said the alleged discrimination uncovered in the Globe report came as no surprise. He has heard regularly, he said, from officers in state and local police departments who describe a troubling work environment that is at times hostile to women and minorities.
“This is a broken system,” Holmes said, calling for revamping the civil service laws that dictate the processes to recruit and hire police officers. “We keep having lawsuits after lawsuits. This is not working.”
Holmes has been one of several lawmakers pushing for state licensing of law enforcement officers through a commission that can also revoke those licenses in cases of proven misconduct. Such a body is often known as a Peace Officer Standards and Training commission, or POST.
A bill that would have given the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee such oversight — but exempted the State Police — failed last year, Holmes said.
“We need to get it done this session,” Holmes said.
The Municipal Police Training Committee trains and develops standards for municipal police departments all over Massachusetts, as well as the University of Massachusetts and environmental police. Though the State Police have a separate training academy, the superintendent of the State Police, Colonel Richard D. McKeon, is one of several members of the municipal training committee.
Roger Goldman, an emeritus professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied POST commissions extensively and visited Massachusetts to discuss the issue last year, said licensing police officers — and allowing the state to revoke those licenses — would mirror dozens of other professions, from lawyers to real estate agents to massage therapists.
Such a commission could provide for statewide minimum standards for all officers, mandatory psychological testing, and background checks.
And rather than leaving disciplinary actions to individual departments to handle internally, such a commission could decide to rescind licenses in cases of misconduct. Officers who lost licenses would then not be able to find a new job doing the same thing in a different department, Goldman said.
“There is no method for preventing an officer who has been released — or even fired — from one department from going to work for another department,” state auditors wrote in an October 2016 report.
Baker said a task force is studying the possibility of a POST commission for Massachusetts. But the devil, he said, is in the details, and he declined to say whether he would support such a plan.
“I would argue that some of what we do in Massachusetts at the state level is very consistent with how POST training works,” Baker said. “We think it’s a good issue for us to be looking at.”