5/23/08

Labor-state police union digs in

Although fiscal analysts continued to argue that curbing police details in favor of cheaper civilian flagmen could save taxpayer dollars, police unions, officers and labor leaders offered a sharp rebuttal on Tuesday, arguing that the enhanced public safety provided by police officers has saved lives and prevented costly, violent crime.

The police organizations spoke at a public hearing in Belmont, Mass. convened by the Executive Office of Transportation and Public Works in order to devise regulations to govern the use of police details and civilian flagmen at construction sites, an issue that has proven a lightning rod for critics of state government spending. The office was charged with promulgating the regulations in a recently signed transportation bond bill.

When a commuter rail train crashed in Canton, the first three officers on the scene were from nearby details, said Tim King, in-house counsel for the Massachusetts Coalition of Police. In addition, a shooting suspect in 2004 was apprehended by an officer on a detail and an instance of domestic abuse was broken up by an officer patrolling a construction site.

“This is one thing that cannot be quantified by any study that one of the think tanks on the other side of this argument can design,” King said. “[Police details] provide extra protection to the people of our communities in the event of crimes. They provide a necessary deterrent to opportunity crime that would occur given less police protection and presence.”

Economic observers, including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the Beacon Hill Institute and Pioneer Institute estimate that police details cost about $42 per hour while flagmen may cost up to $34 per hour, depending on whether fringe benefits are required. In submitted testimony, MTF President Michael Widmer noted that MBTA employees assigned to flagman duty receive $25.97 per hour, and the Beacon Hill Institute notes that crossing guards in Delaware are paid $16.23 per hour.

At the outset of the hearing, MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky vowed that the administration would “keep safety first” when promulgating regulations. She added, however, that efficiency and the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars was high on her priority list.

Undersecretary of Transportation Jeffrey Mullan, who presided over the hearing, said a draft of the regulations would be ready in time for a second public hearing on June 25. The regulations are due to be finalized on July 16, 90 days after the passage of the transportation bond bill.

In September, a legislatively authorized Transportation Finance Commission recommended curtailing police details, which it contended would save $100 million.

King argued that officers, highly trained in First Aid, can have an ambulance on the scene in minutes should a drunk or irresponsible driver cause an accident.

Police officers and other supportive unions said the savings realized by employing civilian flaggers – the norm in 49 other states – would be minimal because they are legally required to receive a prevailing wage and benefits. Furthermore, they said, the mere presence of a police officer deters crime, saving immeasurable dollars in the long run.

Beacon Hill Institute executive director David Tuerck challenged the notion that flagmen must receive a prevailing wage, but added that even if the wage law were applied, they would still be less costly than a police detail and save millions of dollars.

Tuerck said the argument that public safety would be reduced by replacing officers with flagmen indicated a general need for more police on the streets.

“Maybe we don’t have enough uniformed police doing their day-to-day job,” he said. “Maybe we need to hire more. Maybe they need to be stationed where they can catch drivers who run red lights and protect pedestrians from drivers who ignore pedestrian crossings. As a voter and a taxpayer, that would make perfect sense to me.”

Tuerck’s position was backed by Steve Poftak, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, who urged EOT to “avoid the red herrings” raised by police organizations to prevent reform.

He said amending current practices to include a greater reliance on flagmen would save unnecessary expenses. He also argued that rules regarding minimum detail hours and cancellation policies should be revised as well.

Tuerck’s testimony was sharply rebutted by State Police Association of Massachusetts President Richard Brown who characterized it as “smoke and mirrors.”

“It isn’t all just standing there, Mr. Tuerck, with a flag in your hand or a stop-and-go sign in your hand. There are some serious safety issues if you go from police officers to flag-people,” he said. “We have the authority to arrest if we have to. We have the authority to shut the detail down after consultation with the engineer if we have to. We have the authority to open up a lane if we have to. What we’ll be doing with flaggers is responding to the accidents and picking up body parts out on the interstates when a flagger’s out there trying to stop traffic.”

An issue for years, the notion of replacing police details with flagmen bubbled to the surface in March, when Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and state transportation leaders pointed to the idea as one of a series of transportation reforms that could save the state money. The Senate tacked the proposal onto a transportation bill, but after a strong push by police unions, backed off mandating the change, instead tasking EOT with developing guidelines.

(wickedlocal.com)

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