If you want to know how hard it is to pull off any meaningful police reforms in Massachusetts, just drive past a road construction site.
For decades, Massachusetts governors have tried and failed to upend the expensive practice of employing police officers, not civilians, to direct traffic around most road work. One effort in 2008 estimated that the state could save about $100 million over 20 years by curtailing what’s known as “detail work” for police at road construction sites. And the plan didn’t even include the Turnpike, policed by the scandal-plagued State Police Troop E.
The changes 10 years ago encouraged the use of civilian flaggers instead of police at many work sites. But the law was weak compared to the political power of police unions, and within a few years, the use of flaggers had dwindled, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found.
When even modest police reforms have been so protracted and fraught, it’s hard to be hopeful about anyone’s ability to pull off more serious change — the kind that’s required in response to several recent State Police scandals. And while the reforms Governor Charlie Baker and Colonel Kerry Gilpin have proposed sound smart, potent, and overdue, it’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before.
Take Troop E, set to be disbanded in the wake of an alleged overtime scam that is the subject of a criminal investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey. Troop E has been a cash cow for so long that one Globe headline from 1996 — “Details, OT swell state troopers paychecks” — could have been repurposed wholesale for the latest scandal. Change a few names and numbers, and we could have just reprinted the whole story two weeks ago.
History suggests that the appropriate response to Baker and Gilpin’s proposed reforms is, at least in part, skepticism. Politicians have been trying to rein in the staggering overtime and other compensation that troopers patrolling the turnpike have been making for decades. But even that attention didn’t keep more than two dozen troopers from allegedly taking checks for shifts they didn’t work in 2016.
How deep-rooted and intractable must the problem be when more than 20 years of gubernatorial threatening and hand-wringing isn’t a sufficient deterrent? Baker and Gilpin seem sincere about their desire to clean up the many problems inside the barracks of New England’s largest police force. But until every trooper who defrauded the state is prosecuted the same way you or I would be if we stole thousands of dollars from the treasury, it’s hard to believe anything will really change.
That may yet happen — and for the many proud, competent, professional troopers who are aggravated by all this, it’s the best thing that could happen. Baker and Gilpin both acknowledged this week that the reputation of the State Police has been tarnished.
Unfair as that may feel to the many troopers who do their jobs with integrity, it’s now plain that there were too many who did not. Between the alleged stealing in Troop E and the astronomical and unreported compensation paid to many in Troop F — the plum assignment that includes Logan Airport — it’s hard to have any faith in the system by which troopers are paid.
Troopers deserve a fair wage, of course. Compensating troopers fairly for their time, training, and risk is important; no one is suggesting otherwise.
Spend a few hours in municipal court in East Boston, where arrests that State Police make at Logan wind up, and you’ll see just how much nonsense the State Police put up with.
Taken together, several months’ worth of recent Logan arrest reports describe a parade of travelers, many of them drunk, wandering in traffic or passing out shirtless in the terminal. Alleged scammers try to use fraudulent credit cards at the rental car center. One woman kicked a hole in a window because she missed her flight; a man pulled a fire alarm at the airport Hilton in a drunken attempt to mess with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Wednesday, a Rhode Island man appeared in court because he’d allegedly squirted something in the face of a State Trooper, touching off a violent struggle that spilled onto a moving baggage carousel. The man’s lawyer told an incredulous judge that he’d thought the trooper would think being sprayed in the face with hand lotion was a funny joke.
If you told me to spend hour after hour at Logan, never quite sure when an idiot was going to spray something in my face and then start punching me, you’d have to pay me pretty well, too.
But there are a lot of exit ramps between fair compensation and a quarter-million dollars a year.
Disbanding Troop E, which is responsible for the Mass. Pike, and taking a hard look at the expenses associated with Troop F are both smart and reasonable moves. Other reforms, like the implementation of body cameras, are mostly notable for their tardiness. Many police officers say they want body cameras at this point, as a guard against false accusations of misconduct. The cameras’ absence is more evidence of intractability.
Maybe those and other proposed reforms will begin to change a culture that has been contaminated for too long.
Or maybe we’ll print these stories again in 10 years.