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Council shines light on police contracts

Wu administration officials share goals

Isaiah Thompson

In a departure from prior years, senior members of the mayor’s administration appeared before Boston City Council members, as well as members of the public, to discuss in broad strokes the city’s ongoing process in negotiating new contracts with police unions — especially with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA), which is by far the city’s largest police union and represents some 1,500 officers.

City Council members are prohibited by the city charter from inserting themselves into labor contract negotiations, but the Wu administration consented to provide in-person testimony about the city’s broader goals and priorities in the bargaining process, while declining to discuss any matters touching directly on the ongoing negotiations.

The new stance was a welcome change for at least some Council members.

“We do need to have a public forum where people can talk about these issues,” District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok said, noting that Wu campaigned on transparency and that the City Council has held numerous hearings on police contracts as “policy documents.”

Speaking for the Wu administration, Lou Mandarini, a longtime union labor lawyer now serving as senior advisor to the mayor, acknowledged the significance of the hearing, calling it “a sea change” in the way that the administration is working with the Council on this issue.

“We see [the hearing] as a mark of respect for the Council and the process,” he said.

Mandarini also countered intimations by three Council members — Council President Ed Flynn, District 3 Councilor Frank Baker and at-large Councilor Erin Murphy — that the hearing itself represented an “inappropriate” intrusion, as Flynn put it, by the Council into union bargaining matters.

In a presentation, Mandarini described the administration’s broadest goals as “to drive reform through the collective bargaining agreement … and cut a fair deal for our police officers.”

Within that framework, Mandarini cited three reform priorities: police overtime costs; police details, including the current requirement that road and construction flagging be done by sworn officers; and the ever-contentious issue of police discipline.

Police overtime

Current contracts give police supervisors broad authority to assign or approve overtime and require that the city pay that overtime, regardless of the budget — and the Boston Police Department routinely exceeds budgeted overtime costs. Last year, the BPD spent roughly $72 million on overtime — about $23 million over the amount budgeted.

Mandarini said the administration’s approach to overtime is “not necessarily cutting spending, but rather pursuing through the collective bargaining agreement the drivers of overtime,” noting that such drivers include decisions made by senior and supervising officers.

Councilors Flynn and Murphy suggested that overtime costs meant the city should hire hundreds more officers to fill the ranks.

Other members disagreed, including District 5 Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who cited a 2015 audit of the BPD that found overtime had been effectively “handed out,” in Arroyo’s words, to district captains to distribute to officers.

“We’ve heard about overtime and that the solution, or the cure, for the overtime problem is more officers,” Arroyo said. “But what this 2015 audit found is actually quite the opposite.”

Arroyo asked if the practice persists.

“I’m not aware of that,” replied Mandarini.

Asked by District 1 Councilor Gabriela Coletta how many of the roughly 1.4 million hours of overtime clocked last year were mandated versus voluntary, Mandarini said he did not have such figures in front of him.

Police details, civilian flaggers

Tied closely to the issue of police overtime is the question of whether police should, as they do now in Boston, have exclusive jurisdiction over special detail assignments, especially “flagging” duty for construction and road work in the city.

This issue was the subject of another recent hearing in City Council. That hearing became heated as police union representatives clashed with activists and members of the public who demanded that civilians be hired to work the shifts that BPD officers are unable to fill, which last year accounted for 35% of all requests from construction and utility companies.

“A lot of this conversation has revolved around whether civilian flaggers or civilians can participate in traffic control,” said Mandarini. “But from the standpoint of the administration, there is much more to detail reform than the question of civilian flaggers, although that is certainly part of the discussion.”

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League, addressing Council members after Mandarini’s remarks, said the issue is timely — and requires more than discussion.

“Year after year, community demands have come up in this chamber about the police, from overtime to civilianizing

, to many other issues. And we always hear, ‘Well, we can’t do it because of the contract,’” said Ahmad. “Right now is the moment that you have to deliver on this.”

Police discipline

In the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Boston, like many cities, saw calls for new and better civilian oversight of police misconduct.

In 2021, then-mayor Marty Walsh signed an executive order creating a new civilian oversight body, the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency (OPAT). In January of this year, Mayor Wu made appointments to “fully staff” the office, which, according to an April 2022 report by the Boston Globe, has had a slow start, having processed only a handful of reports of misconduct at the time.

Mandarini reiterated to Council members that discipline is a priority in present contract negotiations.

“The reality is that there is a small number of police officers that engage in behavior that does damage to the BPD. It does damage to the city, and frankly, it does it does damage to the profession,” Mandarini conceded.

“That is to say, there are people who are officers who probably shouldn’t be officers,” he added. “And we need to bring about the reforms that I think make it easier to remove people who are not acting in conformance with the trust that we put in them.”

Pressing the issue, Bok said she remains “deeply concerned about the ability for our new civilian review board to actually function the way that it’s supposed to, if we don’t make some kind of contract progress on that discipline.”

In response, Mandarini said, “All of what you said is certainly relevant in the formation of our priorities and informs what we’re doing … Beyond that, I think we would get too close to talking about actual [bargaining] proposals.”