What People Say When They Get Arrested

The Boston Globe has a front page story on April 10 titled “Arresting Words.” Written by columnist Yvonne Abraham, the story weaves the words from Boston police reports into a tapestry of what police officers face daily on the streets and in the health clinics and within the homes of people to whom they are called to respond. Most are poor, many suffer from mental or physical illness, some are violent or threaten violence.

We see and hear a lot about victims of police abuse. This story gives some small bit of insight into the world into which society sends its police officers. Perhaps because it thrives on sensationalism, the press usually fails to convey a true picture of the milieu in which police officers work. Police must at once be legal experts and social workers. Split second decisions are parsed by appellate judges and clinical psychologists years later, but only after they have spent weeks, months, and years poring over enormous amounts of data, much of which the officer on the scene had no knowledge of in the moment.

And how does society value the men and women in police work? It compensates them like other public employees – fire fighters, teachers, sanitation workers – but nowhere near the level of the judges or bureaucrats who sit in judgment over therm.

One would think that having an educated police force would be a good idea. In fact, in 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (the Johnson Crime Commission) recommended more education for police officers. Massachusetts responded in 1970 by passing the Quinn Bill, now known as the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, codified as Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 149, Section 108L. A local option law, it provided additional compensation ranging from 10% to 20% to 25% for an Associates’, Bachelor’s, and Masters/JD degree. When many municipalities accepted the program, thousands of police officers seized the incentive to gain college degrees. But the program’s Achilles heel was that, although its cost was supposed to be split between the state and the community, starting in the late 1980’s and continuing to the present day, the Legislature has underfunded the program to the point that it makes virtually no contribution to its one-half share.

In Boston, where one would think educated police officers would be a priority, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the City had negotiated for this benefit in 1998. But when the Commonwealth underfunded the program in 2009, the City simply shortchanged its educated police officers, reducing their salaries by thousands of dollars. The Supreme Judicial Court, which has no problem opining on the lofty standards to which police are held (“it is extremely important for the police to gain and preserve public trust, maintain public confidence, and avoid an abuse of power by law enforcement officials.” 1 ) voted unanimously to uphold these pay cuts for educated police officers.

The current solution to address police abuse is to put body cameras on police officers. If and when that happens, and if people actually watch 99+% of what the police see, they will perhaps gain some insight into the world into which this Globe article peers. As one veteran officer remarked to me, people would be horrified to actually have to look at some of what police see on a daily basis. He mentioned entering a house where multiple people and domestic animals had relieved themselves everywhere, creating a visual and olfactory experience that could only induce nausea.

The social and economic conditions depicted in this column were not created by the police. But it is the police who must spend much of their working lives dealing with them. As Jesse Jackson has written,

The president has created a Task Force on 21st Century Policy, with instructions to report in 90 days. He’s committed millions to put cameras on police. But he might be better advised to put cameras on bankers.

By putting this article on its front page, the Globe perhaps opened a few readers’ eyes. But there is much more that must be done

1 City of Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen’s Ass’n, 443 Mass. 813 (2005)

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