Measure could curb use of police details at worksites
Civilians dressed in bright vests and armed with flags could soon be directing traffic around road construction projects under a proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick and top lawmakers designed to chip away at a long-held police perk.
The change would bring Massachusetts in line with most other states — which allow flagmen at some construction sites — while saving millions in needed transportation dollars, supporters said.
Past efforts to change the closely guarded system have faltered. A similar attempt by former Gov. William Weld was stymied after it ran into opposition from powerful police unions who see the details as a way to add to the salaries of officers.
The proposed change has gotten new traction in the wake of a report released last year by a special blue ribbon commission that found the state is looking at a $15 billion to $19 billion shortfall in funding to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure over the next two decades.
Patrick raised the possibility of using flagmen in the wake of the report.
Senate President Therese Murray decided to include the change in a package of reforms to be attached to a $4.8 billion transportation bond bill making its way through the Legislature. She said adding civilian flagmen to the mix could save $100 million over 20 years.
“Everything has to be on the table,” she said last Thursday.
Rick Brown, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, said police details are more than just a way to boost pay.
Brown said police can do things civilian flagmen can’t, including shutting down a construction site if needed, opening another lane for traffic, and responding quickly to an accident or a crime.
“We offer a lot more than any flagman can offer,” Brown said, adding that he worked details for 27 years and did more than just direct traffic. “Every state uses police officers on details for public safety.”
State Sen. Steve Baddour, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said police details will still be needed. He says the state just wants to give cities and towns guidance about when to use police and when to use flagmen.
He said the goal of the change is to draft recommendations that municipalities can use to help make those decisions. Those recommendations would classify streets in different “tiers,” with heavily trafficked streets in one tier and secondary and dead-end streets in another.
“We are not eliminating police details,” said Baddour, D-Methuen. “They are necessary on some roadways. They are not necessary on other roadways.”
In fact, there are no laws currently requiring cities and towns to use police details, although most opt to use police by custom — and because of a lack of guidance from the state about when it’s best to use civilians instead.
The costs can add up quickly.
According to the report released last year by the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission, costs for police details on MassHighway projects alone increased from $15.5 million in 2003 to $22.6 million in 2006, a 48 percent increase over the three years.
About 4.5 percent of the total cost of MassHighway’s construction projects goes to pay for police details, the report also found.