Framingham police officer on construction detail
before and after getting his degree using the Quinn bill.

Value of police details queried
Group sees high cost and poor safety record
November 11, 2004
Donovan Slack The Boston Globe
Police officers working at construction sites on local roads were paid an estimated $94.3 million statewide last year, more than three times the amount civilian flaggers might have cost, according to a study that questions whether details pay off in road safety.

The study contends that taxpayers and businesses could have saved $37 million to $67 million if local laws allowed companies and government agencies to hire civilian flaggers instead of uniformed officers to direct traffic at construction sites.

"Somebody owes the public a big explanation as to why we are wasting millions of dollars a year on these details," said David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, which conducted the study.  "The police cannot produce one shred of evidence to support why we need this expense."

The study also indicated that Massachusetts had the highest rate of accidents causing property damage and the second highest rate of accidents causing bodily injury between 1980 and 2000, though it is the only state where cities and towns routinely require police supervision at road construction sites.

The report does not include data from the State Police, whose troopers typically work highway construction details.  Massachusetts has the nation's third lowest rate of fatalities in highway work zones, according to the report, which focused on municipal roadways.

The accident data -- obtained from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Insurance Research Council, an industry-funded research group -- did not specify how many accidents occurred near road construction sites.  And the researchers said they could not unequivocally conclude that police details had no effect on traffic safety.  But they said the high rate of accidents statewide strongly suggests that police details are not a serious deterrent.

"The implications of this analysis are significant," the study said.  "The safety record suggests that the state is receiving a poor return on its investment."

Police unions have long argued that Massachusetts roads are safer than in the 49 states where civilian flaggers are allowed to handle much of the work.  Yesterday, officials at the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association defended that argument, saying that data of accidents near road construction sites, if it were available, would show that police details make roads safer.

James Barry, legislative agent for the association, said the Beacon Hill Institute's study failed to account for other factors that might explain Massachusetts higher overall accident rate.  He said that without police details, accident rates would be even higher.

"We have the worst drivers in the country," he said.  "Absolutely nobody would pay attention to civilian flaggers."

For the study, Beacon Hill Institute researchers surveyed detail costs at police departments in 103 of the state's 351 cities and towns.  Using that data, they estimated that officers across the state earned a total of $142.9 million for off-duty details, including security details at nightclubs and stores.  Based on itemized data supplied by some of the departments, the researchers estimated that about two-thirds of statewide detail costs were from road construction sites.

Police in Massachusetts charged an average of $34.70 per hour for detail work in 2003, according to the study.  If civilian flaggers had been hired instead, companies and government agencies could have paid a rate as low as $9.97 per hour, the national average wage for civilians who direct traffic, the study said.  The highest rate researchers found nationally for civilian flaggers was in Delaware, where flaggers who have received training and special certification were paid up to $21.01 an hour.

Police unions dispute those figures, saying that the prevailing wage law in Massachusetts requires that workers at construction sites be paid the same as construction laborers, which could inflate their cost in the state.

Barry contended that the rate charged by flaggers in Massachusetts could be as high as $38 an hour.

"If it's a union job, which most construction jobs are, then you have to be paying the rate of a union laborer," he said.

The Beacon Hill Institute researchers said the prevailing wage law does not apply to flaggers.

"It's absurd to argue that state labor laws should require us to pay civilian flaggers at a rate of $79,000 a year, which is what the police union is suggesting," Tuerck said.  Police unions defend local laws in Massachusetts that require that police be present at road construction sites.

But there have been numerous reports of officers manipulating the system for extra pay.  The Globe reported in September that hundreds of Boston police officers collected pay for working two detail shifts in separate locations at the same times.

In 2000, the Globe reported that Boston police officers skipped out on court dates to work details, causing criminal cases to be dismissed.  In 1998, another Globe report showed that hundreds of Boston officers called in sick or injured on days they worked details, allowing them to collect sick pay and detail pay.

In a newsletter for some 22,000 police officers across the state, representatives of the Massachusetts Police Association warned readers of the Beacon Hill Institute's study.

"The hair on the back of our neck began to rise upon learning of a study being conducted by . . . a think tank at Suffolk University regarding police details," said the newsletter, The Sentinel, in its legislative report.  "Experience tells us this cannot be good.  We urge you to use discretion in the amount of information given and the cost of providing such."

Jim Machado, an executive board member of the Police Association and one of those who wrote the report, said yesterday that stories in the media often are compiled without police input, and that the costs of providing information can be excessively high for small town police departments.

Some of the 248 police departments that provided data for the study did not respond to the institute's requests for records.

Dozens said they would charge for the data, and some said they did not know how much was paid to detail officers or how many details officers worked in their towns last year.

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