SOME THINGS AROUND HERE never change. One of them is the incredible inability of elected officials to say no to sweetheart deals for the police.
The latest example of this costly habit: Six state troopers are assigned full-time to the posh summer playgrounds of the rich and famous, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, with their “sun-kissed cobblestone streets, cool island breezes,” $15 smoothies, and oceanside hotels running up to $1,000 a night.
There is little crime — perhaps two incidents a day and two arrests a month on each island. The islands already have their own local police departments. Yet somehow, most of the state troopers each racked up $35,000 last year in overtime. The Nantucket commander and his family live in a million-dollar state-owned home rent-free.
“The very top of the perk list,” said former state Inspector General Greg Sullivan. “An island dream!” And it’s been going on for years.
In 2011, a cost-saving study on the State Police recommended ending the island postings. Nothing happened. In 2001, then-Secretary of Public Safety Jane Perlov suggested that the Nantucket commander at least pay a modest rent. Nothing again.
The focus of State Police on the islands comes as the Legislature is proposing more oversight of police, after numerous trooper scandals (including an alleged fraudulent overtime scam involving dozens of troopers, going back years, and costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in 2016 alone).
I thought Beacon Hill might thus be emboldened to take on “paradise.”
Well, neither House Speaker Robert DeLeo, nor Senate President Harriet Chandler, nor her successor, Karen Spilka, nor the governor said troopers must bid adieu to their sandswept, salty-air heaven.
In a recent radio interview with me, Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans said some lawmakers are afraid of the State Police. That’s his theory on why the State Police, not Boston Police, are still policing the Seaport in Boston.
But local police have long unnerved politicians too. What is it? The uniforms? The machismo? The endorsements?
During the 2008 recession, claiming that the state could save $100 million with flagmen rather than cops on construction projects, Governor Deval Patrick and legislators took a rare stand against police details, and Massachusetts became the last state in the country to allow flagmen.
David Tuerck, of the watchdog Beacon Hill Institute, remembers a massive hearing room filled with massive police officers, guns, and big black boots. Tuerck began by joking that he was “like a mother-in-law on somebody’s honeymoon.” The mood changed when he started criticizing details. But Tueck, who stands about 5 feet 8 inches, said he was not intimidated by the booing, hissing, and yelling that drowned him out. Meanwhile police mobbed the State House and showed up at lawmakers’ front doors.
Beacon Hill quietly backed down, and police still control traffic at construction projects. That’s why, 10 years later, unless you spend time on cul-de-sacs in the middle of nowhere, you’ve never seen a flagman.
Before that, Governor Bill Weld went after details too. Michael Widmer, longtime head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, remembers nearly 800 cops picketing outside the State House while inside, he said, the place “turned into a sea of blue. The legislative committee melted. . . . One minute into the hearing, the proposal was dead.”
You’ve got to be impressed by police unions’ zeal. But when Massachusetts can’t provide adequate salaries to other crucial government workers – public defenders and social workers, to name a few – that’s a problem. So is public cynicism, when there are great cops who risk their lives every day. Last week, Weymouth Police Sergeant Michael Chesna, 42, was killed on duty.
I’d give kudos to Methuen, where politicians scrapped stratospheric police salaries that would have amounted to an average of $434,841 a year for five police captains.
The raises would have bankrupted the town. And one of those captains is the son of Mayor James Jajuga, a former state trooper himself. Methuen ultimately dropped captains’ base pay to $130,000 — benefits, perks, and overtime not included. The town had no choice.
The rest of the state has many choices, of course, but don’t hold your breath, said Widmer. “The tradition here of abusing public privilege is so deep and so broad, you can’t live enough lifetimes to keep track of the excesses,” he said. “It just never ends.”
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”