and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation

Barbara's Column
October #1

Put prestige back in police work
by eliminating private details
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, October 4, 2007

So there I was, my grandfather's pride and joy: less than three feet tall, my thick curly hair brushing his holster or handcuffs as we walked hand-in-hand in downtown St. Marys, Pennsylvania. I have loved policemen, in general, ever since.

I grew up with the story of how he lost his job, which forever influenced my attitude toward politicians.

It seems he'd arrested the mayor for public drunkenness. When the mayor resisted because he was an important man, my grandfather, a very big Croatian immigrant, picked him up by the scruff of the neck and carried him, legs pumping a few inches from the ground, across the railroad tracks from the bar to the town jail. Gramps was fired the next day; he went to Erie and did well as a security guard on the docks.

When someone says "policemen," I think of all the men-in-blue cop shows I've watched on television, like "Adam 12," "Highway Patrol," "SWAT," "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "The District;" and movies like "The Thin Blue Line," a phrase that describes those who stand between us and the bad guys -- heroes.

Many little boys want to grow up to be policemen. My son, who in his youth had a few helpful encounters with Marblehead's finest, became a public safety officer for awhile himself, working for a Nevada sheriff's office.

Several years ago, I was driving east through Vinnin Square, where Marblehead, Swampscott and Salem come together at a crossroads. I was waiting at the four-way light, facing a police cruiser from one of the three communities with a young officer in it. As we began to take our turn to go, two tough-looking guys on big motorcycles ran the red light, heading north on Route 1A. The officer jumped out of his car and ran out, yelling at them to come back and wait for their next green.

What I could see, and he could not, was the long line of bikers behind them, reaching, as far as I knew, all the way to Florida. I grabbed my phone, thinking I might have to call 911. Then he looked south and saw them himself, far as the eye could see, gunning their motors. He never blinked, just kept moving the two bikes back until they were where they belonged. Then he walked back to his cruiser. One cop vs. a few hundred, if not a thousand bikers -- who, fortunately, respected the uniform.

That's the key to a civilized society: Respect for the uniform. That, more than the money, is the reason that paid police details must be abolished. Because when people think "policeman," they should be thinking "hero," not "detail guy watching the hole being dug in the road."

While driving home recently from Danvers, I passed four police officers on special details. Two were a few feet away from each other, two others were chatting with their backs to the road. This week, on a residential street in which one lane was closed, a young officer waved me through; I decided to wait, since a van was coming right at me. I've seen other near-accidents at construction sites behind the detail cop.

When I used to drive across Pennsylvania, there'd be young women, their blonde ponytails pulled back under their hard hats, working as flagmen. Once I saw an elderly woman, 75 years old if she was a day, wearing the hat, orange vest and leaning on the sign. Drivers obeyed them because these flagmen and women were backed up by construction guys with muscles out to here.

The police union leaders try to defend Massachusetts being the only state in the nation using police officers on construction details. They say it's good to have them out there if someone tries to rob a nearby bank. They point out that the state's prevailing wage law requires civilian flagmen to make roughly the same as the police.

It would be convenient, just not affordable, to have an armed police officer on every corner at all times.

As for the prevailing wage law, it can be amended to exclude college kids and other civilian flagmen from that artificially high paycheck as part of the legislation that says collective bargaining cannot be used to force any city or town to use police officers for details.

Certainly an individual police officer could do details as a second job, if someone wanted to hire him; however, unlike now under some local contracts, he wouldn't have to be paid for four or even eight hours when he only works two. Others wouldn't be in the position of having to take advantage of taxpayers and businesses simply because the money is so hard to pass up -- even though the job is incredibly boring and must be hard on the back. And best of all, drivers wouldn't be laughing or shaking their heads in annoyance at the sight of one of the biggest public employee rip-offs in a state that has more than its share.

If the Legislature begins to end this practice, as the Transportation Finance Commission recommends, cops can be seen again only as much-respected heroes; and the legislators would get some respect for standing up to the police unions at last.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and Eagle Tribune, and often in the Newburyport Times, Gloucester Times, and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.