Our Opinion: State police OT remains an issue

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The 2018 Massachusetts State Police overtime scandal that resulted in the dissolution of an entire troop, the conviction of seven police officers, and the reassignment of many others was thought to have wound down late last year but something is definitely still awry.

According to a report released this week by the state comptroller's office, overtime spending by the State Police increased by just over 9 percent to $57.8 million in 2019. This during the course of a year when several state police officers found themselves in courtrooms and the department was under extra scrutiny by both the Legislature and the governor's office because of the overtime scandal.

In essence, the scandal involved troopers putting in for costly overtime shifts and not working them. Court testimony revealed that superior officers would order troopers in their command to put in for unworked overtime. "Run silent, run deep" and "Take a slow ride home" were code names for this practice, which over a period of years cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. The problem was so bad in Troop E, the Turnpike beat, that the troop was dissolved and its members assigned to other troops.

Last year, 23 troopers made more than $100,000 in overtime pay, according to the comptroller. A little more than 300 troopers took home more than $200,000 overall, which represents about 15 percent of the department's workforce.

Has the scandal continued, has a new one begun, or is this an institutional issue? Gregory Sullivan, the state's former inspector general and now a research director at the Pioneer Institute, seems to suspect the latter, telling the Boston Globe that State Police overtime has to be addressed beyond the fraud scandal.

Contract provisions and rules make it easy for state troopers to collect large amounts of overtime, said Mr. Sullivan. "The State Police make great efforts to allow their officers and ranking officers to earn overtime," he explained. "The State Police in some ways operates to provide overtime."

On the bright side, overall state police payroll dropped by 0.7 percent in 2019, although this may be due to stalled contract negotiations that have left troopers without raises for two years. In the Globe, department spokesman David Procopio attributed the overtime pay increases to increased work loads due largely to the retirements of 53 troopers.

Work load increases were undoubtedly a factor in the dramatic hike in overtime pay. And we don't dispute that state troopers deserve to be fairly compensated for important and often hazardous work. But a 9.3 percent increase in overtime pay cannot be justified, and the conclusion of the veteran former state inspector general that the system is designed to encourage overtime has plausibility. The system requires immediate reform on Beacon Hill, with perhaps Inspector General Glenn Cunha and/or State Auditor Suzanne Bump leading the effort.

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