The police reform bill recently passed by the Massachusetts Legislature (known as the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training or “POST” law) established a number of committees to study various aspects of policing in the Commonwealth. The job of one of those committees is to study the current civil service system and determine whether any changes need to be made, or whether the entire system should be eliminated. Sandulli Grace attorney John M. Becker recently submitted written testimony to the civil service committee on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a statewide law enforcement union that is one of Sandulli Grace’s clients. The testimony is reproduced below:
Mr. Chairman/Madame Chairwoman, members of the Committee:
My name is John Becker. I am an attorney with the law firm of Sandulli Grace, P.C. I am writing on behalf of our client, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a labor organization that represents over 4,500 police officers and other law enforcement professionals in more than 175 cities and towns in Massachusetts.
I am here today to testify in favor of retaining the civil service system for public safety employees in Massachusetts. There are significant benefits to keeping civil service, as I will explain, and eliminating the system is likely to have significant negative consequences, not the least of which is that dismantling the system and distributing these powers and duties to 351 separate municipalities would be contrary to the objectives of the POST legislation to create consistent statewide standards for police.
Right now, civil service operates in 170 Massachusetts municipalities, including every city in the Commonwealth and a significant number of towns. The state human resources division (HRD), through its civil service unit, regulates hiring and promotional procedures, compiles and administers tests, and compiles and manages eligibility lists from those tests. When a municipality seeks to appoint or promote a public safety officer, civil service ensures that the legal standards are adhered to. HRD also provides an appeal process for applicants who have concerns regarding bypasses, scoring, and training and experience credits. In addition, the Civil Service Commission provides review of suspensions, terminations, and demotions of civil service employees. Upon the appeal of an employee, the Commission reviews such decisions to ensure there was just cause for the action.
Eliminating the civil service system will have significant negative consequences for employees, municipalities, and the Commonwealth as a whole. The purpose of the civil service system is to ensure that appointments and promotions are based solely on merit. The Commonwealth has developed standardized tests for physical fitness, as well as standardized written examinations testing the applicant’s knowledge and skills. The rules for appointment and promotion ensure that employers must rely primarily on objective criteria – test results, training and experience, and other relevant factors – to make their decisions. The system significantly reduces or eliminates the use of political considerations, personal preferences, favoritism, and other irrelevant criteria for hiring and promotional decisions. Returning control of the system to the municipalities will only increase the opportunities for local officials to use these non-objective criteria in the decision-making process.
Maybe even more importantly, the elimination of the statewide standards provided by civil service is inconsistent with the purposes of the recently-passed POST legislation. The idea behind POST is to develop stringent and consistent statewide standards for police. Right now, civil service provides a single, statewide set of standards and rules for hiring and promotion of public safety employees. But dismantling civil service and giving total power for hiring and promotion to the municipalities will potentially create 351 separate sets of rules and standards for hiring and promotion. Instead of furthering the objectives of the POST law, eliminating civil service and dispersing these duties to individual municipalities will do just the opposite, by reducing consistency and creating a patchwork quilt of different standards across the Commonwealth.
This is not to say that municipalities do not have any say in hiring and promotion. Under civil service law, municipalities have the ability to choose from among the top scorers according to a formula known as “2N + 1” and may bypass the top scorer with any reasonable justification. Municipalities can also work with civil service to develop locality-specific testing, or adopt innovative hiring processes such as assessment centers (at the municipality’s cost) to supplement the tests administered by the state. HRD’s rules also allow municipalities to specifically seek local residents, people who speak a certain foreign language, or, if there is a showing of prior discrimination, they can ask for a list of women or minority candidates in order to increase diversity. Furthermore, towns already have the ability to remove themselves from civil service entirely through the political process, and quite a few have taken that step. If municipalities have concerns about specific aspects of the state hiring and promotional rules, they should ask the Legislature to make targeted changes instead of getting rid of the whole system and throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The ability to appeal disciplinary action to the Civil Service Commission is also a benefit to employees and municipalities. The Civil Service Commission provides a low-cost way for individuals to obtain due process – in a setting removed from local politics – and determine whether there was just cause for suspensions, discharges and demotions. The Commission upholds the discipline in the vast majority of cases. Although many police unions and municipalities also have just cause provisions in their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), which are resolved through neutral third-party arbitration, some CBAs lack such just cause provisions and so civil service appeals are the only way to obtain review of discipline. Furthermore, because the Union controls the ability to go to arbitration, some individuals may prefer to go to civil service, where they have full control of the process. Even where arbitration is available, civil service provides a lower-cost alternative that both municipalities and unions may sometimes find useful.
Police officers should be evaluated based on their merit alone. The existence of the civil service system reassures the public that officers have their jobs for no reason other than their qualifications. Police officers can concentrate on doing their jobs, without worrying about being beholden to any particular political force in the community.
The civil service system also provides a consistent statewide standard for hiring and promotion of police and other public safety employees. Fragmenting the system into a hodgepodge of municipal hiring and promotional policies will cause duplication of costs, increased potential for inconsistency, not to mention the potential for political considerations to enter into the process, and moreover, is exactly contrary to the purpose and objectives of the POST legislation.
For these reasons, I urge the Committee to retain the civil service system in Massachusetts.