Despite multiple investigations into an alleged overtime scandal at the Massachusetts State Police, and a pledge by leaders to correct abuses, one longstanding, pricey practice has quietly continued.
Each day, state troopers are posted along highways and tunnels around Boston at seven so-called Emergency Response Stations, poised to respond to accidents, fuel spills, and other incidents.
These Emergency Response posts, tucked in trailers or nondescript government buildings from Brighton to East Boston, are staffed purely on an overtime basis, nearly all of them around the clock even though the assignments have been part of the department’s daily routine for decades.
The lucrative, all-overtime assignments, in which troopers typically earn about $680 per shift, cost taxpayers roughly $13,000 a day by the Globe’s calculations. The overtime price tag for these seven, one-person posts is millions of dollars each year.
In some cases, these solo overtime depots are just blocks away from full-fledged, brick-and-mortar State Police stations.
“This scheduling of troopers, with their services being paid exclusively in overtime, is an outrageous misuse of public funds,” said former state inspector general Gregory Sullivan, now a research director at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. “There is no need for it.”
Sullivan remembers the hefty police bills from his days reviewing massive cost overruns during the state’s Big Dig, a mega construction project that ran from 1991 through 2006 and rerouted the city’s Central Artery and created three major highway tunnels. The Emergency Response posts appear to date back to the early days of the Big Dig.
Following a torrent of State Police scandals and revelations regarding payroll abuse, Governor Charlie Baker and Colonel Kerry Gilpin promised in April a series of internal audits and reforms. They disbanded the troubled Troop E, which long patrolled the Massachusetts Turnpike and is the focus of a federal grand jury probe into alleged overtime abuse.
As part of the reforms, internal records show, a commander suggested the agency maintain staff levels but eliminate overtime for Emergency Response Stations. That suggestion appears to have gone nowhere.
At an event Wednesday alongside Baker, Gilpin said the reforms were going smoothly.
But payroll records obtained by the Globe indicate the overtime for the Emergency Response posts has endured, simply moving with Troop E members to a reconfigured Troop H, which absorbed policing of tunnels and the eastern portion of the turnpike.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said the department recently evaluated different scenarios to reduce overtime and determined that more troopers need to be hired.
He noted that the Baker administration proposed in this year’s budget funds for a new state police class. Lawmakers didn’t sign on. The agency currently has about 2,200 uniformed employees.
Since the department beefed up staffing at Logan Airport in May to combat hefty overtime pay for troopers there, overtime hours at that barracks plummeted up to 600 hours per week, Procopio said.
“We are hopeful that a similar approach might be implemented at the Emergency Response Station posts with the addition of a new class,” he said.
But Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, is skeptical of the push for more troopers.
“I would think if there is a dire need in the State Police Department, we would have heard about it before now,” she said.
Provost wondered why the need for more staff only came on the heels of police overtime scandals.
“How did it go undetected for so long?” she said.
The ERS posts complement troopers who regularly work, for straight-time pay, out of nearby barracks at Logan Airport and the Seaport. The records reviewed by the Globe show some troopers working as many as four of these ERS shifts a week, in addition to their regular assignments.
Procopio said troopers assigned to the Emergency Response Stations respond “frequently” to incidents, “multiple calls every shift,” but said it would take days to provide numbers regarding workload.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which pays for the Central Artery patrols, declined to comment and referred questions to State Police.
Baker’s office released a statement Friday afternoon asserting the administration’s support for Gilpin’s “work to implement new reforms” within the agency. The statement noted that Baker had requested the state budget include funds for a new recruit class.
Sullivan said the ERS posts made sense as a safeguard during construction of the Big Dig.
“There was grave concern among everybody’s part about such things as a fire, and construction collapse that could have had far reaching consequences,” Sullivan said.
But the years-long continuance of these overtime shifts “sounds like a gravy train policy that managed to outlive its usefulness,” he said.
State Police declined to release the locations of the seven posts, citing security concerns. Officials redacted addresses in documents released to the Globe in response to a public records request.
But some of the sites are listed in a 2015 MassDOT report, including the location of ERS 10, nestled in a corner of the bustling Bunker Hill Industrial Park on Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown.
There, sandwiched between the shadow of I-93 and the legendary Schrafft’s building, is a blue “Emergency Response Station 10” sign in front of a gray, steel and cement MassDOT maintenance building.
On Thursday afternoon, a peek through the glass front door revealed a bathroom and a treadmill. A few steps away, sits a trailer, with black plastic covering the windows.
A trooper in a State Police sport-utility cruiser wedged between the two structures Thursday said he was working an ERS post and declined to comment further.
State Police leaders have been bombarded with mounting public frustration about overtime pay.
Troopers, particularly those who served in the now-defunct Troop E, are being scrutinized for allegedly committing fraud by collecting pay for traffic enforcement overtime shifts they did not work.
Dozens of current and former Troop E members have been linked this year to the alleged pay scandal, resulting in a wide-scale audit, a series of internal State Police investigations, and a separate probe by the attorney general’s office. Records show some troopers reported earning five- and six-figure overtime payouts.
In the entire department, at least 299 troopers — about 14 percent — made more than $200,000 last year. Some troopers made more in overtime than in their base pay.
Meanwhile, troopers have been locked in a turf war with Boston Police over patrolling the Seaport District, a task that is heavily reliant on overtime and detail pay, which boosts the ultimate take-home compensation for troopers.
An internal State Police memo obtained by the Globe shows officials recently considered ending the staffing of ERS posts solely by overtime. The April 26 memo from Major Charles W. Atchison, who commanded Troop E shortly before it was disbanded, recommended a reorganization plan that would “provide adequate manning and minimize overtime expenditures,” while also ending the overtime payments.
That recommendation wasn’t heeded. Recent payroll records show the overtime payments for ERS shifts continuing into June.
Atchison’s memo indicated State Police leaders were seeking to reduce staffing levels on the ERS posts, something Atchison recommended against, saying the levels were established as part of a “mandated” emergency response plan. This plan, Atchison noted, was created in collaboration with MassDOT and several other agencies, and submitted to the Federal Highway Administration.
The plan, according to Atchison, is reviewed every three years, and the next review was scheduled to begin late this summer. He advised against any changes until after that review.
Massachusetts is not alone in posting police at major tunnels and bridges around the clock. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has staffers assigned to bridges, tunnels, and highways. Those postings aren’t on overtime, a spokesman for the agency said.