City, News

City weighs swapping traffic cops for civilians

Armed with Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget request to allow cities to replace police officers with civilian flaggers at construction sites on roads with speed limits under 45 miles per hour, Boston city councilors called a hearing to see how much the Hub could save over objections from officers who say the move would hurt public safety.

Boston City Councilor-At-Large Sam Yoon called a hearing to evaluate the monetary benefits of Patrick’s ordinance Thursday.

Though replacing officers with civilians has the potential to save utility companies $30 million, members of the Boston Police Department argued that these savings would not benefit Boston residents and would be disastrous to overall public safety.

Although Patrick requested to limit the number of police details, Boston law currently requires construction sites at city street openings to have them. The utility or construction company doing the work pays for on site officers out of pocket. The ordinance dates back to 1966 and runs until 2010.

Yoon, who is also chairman of the City Council’s Post-Audit and Oversight Committee, said replacing’ police with civilians is a sensitive issue.

‘People have been afraid to even address the issue of police details,’ he said. ‘That’s not acceptable, especially in a democratic society.’

Boston Police Patrolman’s Association President Tom Nee disagreed with Yoon and said the issue of police details is not sensitive, just blown out of proportion.

‘No one is afraid to talk about paid details,’ he said.

Nee said officers should not be criticized for making more money, because they are paid for the hours they work. He also wrote off concerns about the inflated salaries of police officers as being driven by negative media and dirty politics.

‘Nobody stole anything,’ he said.

James Coyle of the Boston Building Trades Council said flaggers would be put in danger when they are only inches away from speeding cars.

‘Your average driver does not respect a civilian with a sign, or a flag or whatever he’s got,’ he said. ‘They do respect police officers.’

Boston Police Department superintendent Robert Dunford said an officer on detail can do more than a civilian flagger.’ Officers can make changes in traffic patterns, assist with pedestrian traffic and have the legal power to stop cars. A driver who does not stop for a police officer is subject to fines, while there is no civil or criminal penalty for ignoring a civilian in an orange vest.

Every main road in Boston is classified as a ‘high-traffic street.” Four thousand cars a day travel on Boston streets and Dunford said he fears for residents near construction sites.’ Without police officers moving traffic away from a construction site, cars can only travel around it and ‘chaos develops,’ he said.

National Grid Director of Gas Construction Amy Smith said her company supports the Boston Police Department.’ Earlier this year, a major water main break in the North End caused a traffic disruption’ in an already congested area. With BPD assistance, National Grid workers were able to speedily fix the problem without injuries to workers, she said.

Local 369 Utility Workers of America Executive Vice President Dan Leary said utility workers must devote 100 percent of their attention to their jobs.

‘Worrying about issues like unsafe drivers, drunk drivers, irate customers or a criminal element – without police detail, our members could never focus 100 percent on their jobs resulting in injury or death.’

Boston City Councilor John Tobin (Jamaica Plain, Roslindale) noted his disappointment that no one from the Governor’s office showed up to the hearing.’

‘While I’m generally a fan of Patrick, I’m disappointed with the governor.’

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