November 26, 2008
The issue of police details on Boston construction sites brings out strong feelings. Some say the system is a waste of money; others feel the police are being unfairly targeted.
I held a hearing so we could have a clear presentation of the facts, and approached it with an open mind. Too often people arrive at the comfort of preconceived opinion without going through the discomfort of examining the evidence. We cannot move forward as a city if we approach every policy problem as nothing more than a political fight.
Following the hearing, I came to the conclusion that there is no compelling reason to end police details - but there are ways we can mend them and improve the system.
We looked at three aspects of details: What do they cost Boston residents? Do they enhance public safety? Are they used properly and how do they affect police performance?
Regarding costs, eliminating police details in Boston will not save residents a significant amount of money. The cost, initially paid by utility companies, is passed on to customers. But they make up a small portion of costs factored into utility rates, and are spread out over many years.
On safety, there is clearly a benefit to having a uniformed police officer on a street; it's common sense. In addition to public safety, the safety of the construction workers themselves should not be overlooked. They say they feel safer with a police officer on detail.
The area of my greatest concern is performance and accountability.
While the hearing wasn't able to fully answer operational questions, we did learn:
Police officers are never required to take a detail assignment. Assignments are posted, and then chosen by officers who can fit them into their schedule. However, details on high-traffic roads are posted first to ensure they are taken.
Not all street construction sites are given police details. Because assignments are voluntary (on the part of the officers), street openings can apparently take place with no detail. The utility company is required to ask for a detail, but it is not held responsible if no one shows up.
Clearly we can do better in administering police details, especially if the goal is to enhance public safety and the safety of construction workers. Many constituents have written to me about what they see.
They see street work without any police detail, as well as several police details on the very same block. This raises questions about the efficiency of the detail allocation system.
They see police details in areas of the city which are considered safe, but spotty or no details in areas of the city which aren't safe. This raises questions about the equity of the allocation system.
I will continue to look into performance and accountability issues. We should examine how we can prioritize assignment of details in high crime areas. This may require changes to the ordinance or to the police contract, since assignments are voluntary.
The debate has been polarized into "get rid of police details" or "don't touch them - they're perfect." There is another choice: we can keep this public-private partnership that pays for officers on the street, while making certain law enforcement resources are deployed where they are needed most.
Sam Yoon of Dorchester is a City Councillor at-Large in Boston.