Police resist push for flagmen at road construction sites

John P. Kelly

Lawmakers across the state were bombarded this week with angry phone calls and e-mails after Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, and other legislative leaders announced a plan to limit police details to save the state money.

Bruce Tait, head of the Quincy Police Department’s patrolmen’s union, said politicians use unrealistic figures when calculating savings.

“The entire argument is half-truths and outright lies,” he said.

Tait said he called on his membership to lobby lawmakers to kill the measure. Using flagmen, he argued, would create more dangerous road conditions for drivers and road crews.

Though only recommendations are being proposed, Tait said police fear there will be a slippery slope toward less off-duty work options for police.

There is no state law requiring that police be hired at road construction sites, but many unions have secured exclusive rights to the jobs through collective bargaining agreements with the cities and towns where they work. Rates can be as high as $45 an hour and some officers have pushed their salaries to the $200,000 range by committing much of their off-duty time to working details.

The South Shore is no exception. Police in Braintree, for example, pulled in more than $1 million collectively last year in private detail pay, according to figures provided by the department. The majority of that was for directing traffic at road construction sites, though the figure also includes security details at barrooms and private functions.

The Senate on Thursday passed a transportation bond bill that included an amendment calling for regulations to be written that outline circumstances in which the state or communities may use lower-paid civilian flagmen, such as on secondary or dead-end roads.

The bill, however, which now moves to the House for a final vote, would not supersede local labor contracts.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who joined Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi last week to announce a push to limit the police details, took a more hushed tone in a radio interview late this week.

Patrick said the state’s control over State Police was one thing, but added, “We’re going to have to show some respect for the judgments at local levels.”

When Gov. William F. Weld proposed allowing civilian flaggers in 1992, some 800 police officers stormed the State House in protest. The issue quickly faded. Efforts since have also been stymied.

It arose again in the fall when the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission called for the use of civilian flagmen, claiming it would save communities nearly $5 million a year.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation puts the figure closer to $31 million, saying communities would pay roughly $7 an hour less to flagmen.

Patriot Ledger writer John P. Kelly can be reached at