PROVINCETOWN — Seasonal police officers arrive on these shores every year along with the tourists and the traffic, but the Mass. police reform law of 2020 may end that program in two years unless the reform act is itself amended.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, who lives in Truro, said the law’s intent was not to do away with summer cops. He said the legislature is now working to address the unexpected challenges the law presents in seasonal communities.
Provincetown’s summer cops have been walking their beats since the department was formed in 1906, said Provincetown Police Chief Jim Golden. Now, the department relies on 8 to 10 summer reserves to back a year-round force of 19. He called the value of his seasonal staff “immeasurable.”
“Trying out young officers as summer cops helps ensure they are the right fit for a department or a career in law enforcement in general,” said Adam Bohannon, Eastham’s police chief. Bohannon, Provincetown’s Chief Golden, and Wellfleet’s Chief Michael Hurley all started out as summer reserves.
Wellfleet has had up to six reserve officers each summer for decades. Eastham has three. Truro does not use them.
Reserve or summer cops spend their summers working traffic and parking control in seasonal towns. They currently have full police powers to arrest suspects and to carry a gun, even though they go through only 400 hours of training.
The Act Relative to Justice, Equity and Accountability in Law Enforcement, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed at the end of 2020, sets the minimum number of hours of training required for certification for all officers.
The change brings the required minimum training time for reserves to 800 hours — the same number that full-time officers now get by the time they graduate from the police academy.
Within two years, all reserve officers must either complete the 400 additional hours of training or they will be decertified.
Because the new requirement will make seasonal officers eligible for full-time jobs, said Wellfleet Chief Hurley, it will likely become much more difficult, if not impossible, to hire part-time officers.
This coming spring, Hurley will be asking annual town meeting voters for one or possibly two new full-time officers to replace the reserves as that program is phased out. He expects to have just one summer cop next year. After 2022, Hurley said, the summer cops will be a thing of the past.
“The 800 hours of training is not a bad thing,” Hurley said. “It is hard to argue that point. But it puts towns like ours in a tough position. I have to cost out the need to hire more people.”
And that cost will be steep. A new police officer earns $29 an hour, or $58,000 a year, plus benefits, Hurley said. Reserve officers get paid about $18 an hour, and they are not eligible for benefits like health insurance. Thus, six reserve officers working 37 hours a week for 12 weeks cost the town just $48,000.
Community Service Officers
Along with the reserves, the Provincetown department also employs eight community service officers. They wear yellow shirts, direct traffic, answer questions, give directions, and enforce parking rules. “They provide a public safety presence with a radio if police service is needed,” Golden said. They do not, however, carry weapons or have authority to make arrests.
The community service officers will not be affected by the new law. But, Golden said, they are not a substitute for the reserves. “There are situations they are just not trained or equipped to handle,” Golden said. “If something were to jump off, they would have to call for help and then act as a good witness. It’s not an ideal model.”
The police reform act is designed to bring more accountability and civilian oversight to the police, said Sen. Cyr. It brings Massachusetts into line with 46 other states by adopting a mandatory certification process for police officers using the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) system, said Golden. The POST commission is developing training standards and has the power to investigate misconduct independently, Golden added.
Golden said he agrees with the concept of having just one level of training for police. But the speed of the legislation’s changes will leave him little choice but to hire more full-time officers in the next two years.
Cyr, however, said that may not be necessary. “This is an instance where — and this often happens — we pass legislation and there is a relatively small group of municipalities who run into an unexpected challenge,” he said. In cases like this, “the legislature often goes back and tries to address the situation. We will work with Chief Golden and others to address it.”
More than 80 percent of the towns in Massachusetts are year-round communities that do not employ reserves, Hurley said. Only the Cape, the Islands, and small hill towns in the Berkshires face this issue.
Cyr said state Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown and Sen. Jo Comerford from the Berkshire region are working on possible solutions. One could be to ask the POST commission to grant waivers to seasonal communities, Cyr said.
Recruitment Not So Bad
The threat to summer staff comes at a time when the police are having trouble hiring full-time officers. Wellfleet has three positions open right now, Hurley said. Provincetown is also looking to hire three officers. Truro and Eastham each have one position to fill.
Some police officials say the tough parts of the job make recruitment difficult. “You see things you cannot unsee,” said Hurley, whose wife is in the state police. Police officers suffer high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and have an above-average rate of suicide, divorce, and addiction, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Mark Leahy, executive director of the Mass. Chiefs of Police Association, blames recruiting and retention difficulties on the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said “vilified” the profession. “All of a sudden we are all shocked to find out fewer people are applying for the job,” Leahy said, “compounded with people choosing to leave the occupation.”
Leahy cited the retirement of 103 police chiefs statewide in the last 12 months. In a normal year, he said, there are 30 retirements. But the Marshall Project, a nonpartisan nonprofit that reports on the criminal justice system, examined U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics records and found that, nationally, the policing profession lost just one percent of its workforce in 2020 after years of growth.
In Massachusetts, the change was similarly slight: a 1.3-percent reduction in police officers. On the Cape, there was a 0.3-percent increase in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Outer Cape’s hiring problems are real, Cyr said, but it’s not just a police department problem. It is also hard to find accountants, firefighters, and lots of other qualified professionals. Lack of affordable housing is a key reason, he said.
Communities also lack social workers, counselors, and programs that could be addressing mental health and addiction problems that now fall to the police to address, Cyr added.
The fact is, Cyr said, “The police are the last ones standing after we have defunded everything else.”