The following is an opinion piece written by Live Boston Senior Contributor Mike Saccone. The words of this article do not necessarily represents the stance of our organization.
Public safety no longer appears to be a concern of Governor Charlie Baker. Last November, a state commissioned study landed on the Governor’s desk detailing a major staffing crisis at Massachusetts State Police. To the surprise of few, little to no effort has been made to rectify the problem in the year since. Now, he’s looking to send hundreds of more troopers packing because they won’t oblige to his overreaching COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which is among the strictest in the nation.
State Police Association of Massachusetts President Mike Cherven says roughly 300 members still haven’t complied with the mandate that went into effect Sunday. They’re among 5,000 state workers who are at risk of being suspended or fired. About 200 troopers have sought exemptions, but the state hasn’t yet responded to them, despite being submitted prior to the rushed deadline. 85% of the union’s members are fully vaccinated.
“This leaves our members and their families, who are honorable and steadfast in their service to the Commonwealth, with looming questions and an unconscionable and unnecessary level of stress and worry,” Cherven said. “The danger to our staffing and to our already overburdened workforce is significant.” Despite what rags like The Boston Globe have and will continue to report, the union isn’t anti-vax, but instead pro-collective bargaining.
“Our concern is based in the lack of fundamental fairness in the administration’s consistent efforts to undermine the processes by which organized labor secures the rights of its members,” Cherven said. “On August 19, Governor Baker announced that there would be 60 days to bargain and implement a policy for mandated vaccinations. Well, 60 days has passed. Though we are beyond the deadline, we have not received even one reply to the several hundred medical and religious exemption requests that were submitted.”
“While our members have continued their watch day in and day out, and adhered to each rushed date and deadline, the administration has fumbled,” Cherven added. “Our members complied with and completed each and every required and intrusive form and submitted to wildly personal interrogations as to the sincerity of their beliefs. Throughout this time, troopers either were vaccinated, resigned or sought medical and or religious exemptions. The administration, however, remains either unwilling to respond to exemptions or unable to decide on what accommodations will be made. Regardless, it is clear they have otherwise strung along the very men and women who sacrifice daily to protect the Commonwealth.”
All the union is seeking is a level playing field where members are offered the same accommodations their federal and municipal partners have been granted.
“Short of that, we ask for at least a timely and fair response to our members’ request for medical/religious exemptions and reasonable accommodations, along with the honoring of lawful labor practices,” Cherven said. “These are not unreasonable requests, especially since the administration has failed to provide answers to their own questions.”
Prior to the vaccine mandate, MSP was already short more than 500 uniformed members, according to the November 2020 staffing study from The Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“As of January 2019, total sworn staffing at MSP was only slightly higher than in 1993,” the report states. While staffing levels remained relatively the same over the past 25 years, MSP has seen significant changes which have resulted in increased demands of service. The population in Massachusetts increased by 14.8% from 6.0 to 6.9 million people between 1993 to 2018, leading to many more cars on the roads. Logan Airport became much busier. Homeland security demands increased following the September 11th terrorist attacks. The opioid crisis exploded. Casino gambling was legalized. Cyber-crime and identity theft skyrocketed. The list goes on.
As of January 2019, MSP had 2,097 uniformed members. The Collins Center report said staffing should be at a minimum 2,611 unformed members. “[I]t is difficult to see MSP being able to meet its current missions with the current number of sworn officers,” the report states. MSP spokesperson David Procopio told Live Boston on October 4 the agency had 2,096 uniformed members, one fewer than January 2019, indicating the report has fallen on deaf ears despite repeated warnings scattered throughout all 59 pages.
“We have seen no such compliance or real effort to raise these numbers,” Cherven said. “Critically low staffing is the single largest threat to public safety today.” The staffing shortage reached a critical low in July when nearly four dozen veteran troopers were pulled from the department’s homeland security and special investigative units and temporarily reassigned to barracks to help patrol the highways.
“As you know, when staffing reaches this level, the ability to use time off, officer wellness, forced shift and increased backfill overtime costs are negatively impacted,” Colonel Christopher Mason acknowledged in a memo to troopers at the time.
The anti-police rhetoric has taken a big hit on recruitment and retention. Those who want to pursue a career in law enforcement are also opting for local departments because they can get an incentive that offers higher pay to officers with a degree in criminal justice. Troopers lost the ability to collect the Quinn Bill compensation several years ago.
Procopio says 168 recruits are set to graduate from the academy later this month, but that will barely take a chip out of the staffing shortage. MSP doesn’t appear to be in a rush to hire more troopers either. The next academy isn’t being scheduled until next year and a firm date hasn’t even been set.
“Funding is in place to begin the next class with a tentative target date of mid-spring,” Procopio said. “The Baker administration has been very consistent with its support for MSP recruit classes. It has funded several classes, including the class before this one, which was our largest class ever.” Retirements have also outpaced the 585 troopers MSP has hired between August 2017 and May 2020, which is noted in the report.
No word from the Governor if he plans to forgo having troopers guard his Swampscott home around the clock or cart him around the state. Those troopers could be added to the mix to help protect the other seven-million Massachusetts residents.
“We are in dire need of courageous leadership that places public safety above politics,” Cherven said.