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Community Voices: Penny wise, pound foolish and no one the safer for it

Lisa H. Thurau

As all eyes focus on the failings of the police lab analyst, it’s time for Massachusetts citizens to open their eyes a bit wider and focus on the next avertable catastrophe in the making.

In 2011, the “Results and Recommendations of the Special Commission on Massachusetts Police Training” was issued and summarily ignored.

This report describes many shortcomings in the training provided to the Commonwealth’s police officers.  Of particular note is the Commission’s finding that the state’s decision to reduce funding over the last decade means fewer officers have received training in specialized skills such as rape investigation and sexual assaults, criminal investigation, the collection and preservation of evidence, internal affairs investigation and drug raids.

These areas are critical to the prosecution of crime and the defense of suspects; they are at the core of the justice system.

That’s because the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC), which sets standards for statewide training, among other functions, has been de-funded to 2001 levels.  At this point, the MPTC is using a recruit curriculum that has not been overhauled since 1996.  And a lot has changed since 1996.

Indeed, Massachusetts is barely funding police training. It ranks among the lowest three states in the country for per capita spending for police training. 

Both newly recruited and experienced officers are deprived of new developments and best practices for effective interactions with people suffering from mental health disorders, for working with juveniles and youth in schools — and for addressing implicit racial bias. Moreover, the MPTC was forced to eliminate its delivery of mandatory professional development (continuing education) training for officers this year due to funding shortages.

When I go to a new doctor, I tend to furtively check the walls of the office for a diploma or a certificate of accreditation. I feel relieved when I see these framed documents, which serve as a portrait of rigorous training and certification of accomplishment.

When an officer stops me and my liberty is at stake, I should be able to have the same level of certainty that I am dealing with a well-trained professional as I do with a doctor.

When I’m being arrested, I should be able to assume the officer has been trained in the latest case law regarding probable cause and the elements of a crime.  And if I or my child appear to be suffering from mental illness, I should be able to assume the officer has the training to recognize the signs and bring specialized training to bear.   

Just as it is axiomatic that an educated citizenry is the cornerstone of democracy, an educated police force is necessary to ensure that our individual rights and liberties are guaranteed.

But Massachusetts citizens cannot be assured of the adequacy of the professional training of their police officers.

The failure of the legislature to identify a stream of state funding for police training means that our state, which annually spends about $187 per officer in training, invests significantly less than our neighbors to the north.

In 2008, per capita officer training expenditure was $1,525 in Vermont and $933 in New Hampshire.

In contrast, Massachusetts has shifted the cost of police training to municipalities at exactly the time they are cash-strapped. 

As a consequence, the wealthiest municipalities are able to provide some training for their officers; the poorer municipalities are not. Is this justice by geography? 

 This shifting of training to individual municipalities reduces the consistency and uniformity of training, potentially resulting in large disparities in the skills and knowledge officers can bring to calls for service and in their enforcement of the law.  It also increases the liability costs, not to mention human costs, for communities when officers perform poorly. 

When the state can’t support equitable distribution of a trained police force, it forfeits its claim to equal access to justice and undermines the legitimacy of its justice system.

Massachusetts needs to get its house in order by properly funding police education. We already do this for firefighters by adding a surcharge to homeowner insurance policies. Surely a similar surcharge to car insurance policies (an estimated $3 per policy per year) is a logical, cheap and necessary step Massachusetts’ residents could take to support and ensure public safety.

Citizens of the Commonwealth have the right to expect professionalism from their police officers.  The state must step up to the plate and meet its obligation to provide the resources officers need to meet that standard. 

Lisa H. Thurau is an attorney, anthropologist and founder of Strategies For Youth, which provides expert training services to promote positive police police/youth interaction.