Rhode Island taxpayers spend millions of dollars every year for police officers to work overtime details at construction sites. This week a Jamestown man questions whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth - and if civilian flaggers should be doing the same job. Jim Hummel speaks with a retired police chief who now trains officers for details and defends their presence at construction jobs.
It is hard to go anywhere in Rhode Island these days without running into this....
And in many cases a uniformed police officer at the construction site.
While many officers actively monitor what's going on, directing traffic and staying in constant communication with the crew, others, shall we say: are not so active.
Meyer: ``We noticed these cops standing around the construction site and not doing anything.''
Frank Meyer moved a decade ago to Jamestown from the Midwest, where he almost never saw police officers at construction sites.
Meyer: ``When Don Carcieri came through with his Big Audit I sent him a letter saying, `What are these cops doing sitting around a construction site?'"
Meyer was so aggravated he took this video of a Jamestown police officer sitting in his cruiser downtown and another on the Jamestown Bridge, posting both videos on You Tube under the heading Highway Robbery.
Meyer: ``They don't direct traffic, they're just sitting in the cars with the motors running - either for AC in the summer or heat in the winter.''
Then Meyer set out to find out how much it is costing the taxpayers. The D.O.T. pointed him to its website. But it wasn't as transparent as it seemed. Meyer enlisted the help of a friend who holds a doctorate in statistics. He set up an Excel spread sheet showing that last year taxpayers paid:
* $3.7 million for police details in local communities
* and another $2 million to state police troopers.
* for a total of more than $5.7 million.
That doesn't count local projects or ones like this to replace a gas line, then repave the road.
So what are the rules for using police officers or flaggers, whose cost ultimately becomes part of project bid and paid for with your tax money?
Sullivan: ``Every department has their own policy - we don't have a statewide work zone policy. We do the training and put out the tools that the officers need to properly work in a work zone.''
Retired Providence Police Chief Richard Sullivan is the state's law enforcement highway safety training coordinator, assigned to the municipal training academy. Sullivan has held workshops like this one for the Coventry Police for nearly half of the state's police officers, including all recruits at the training academy.
His message to them is clear:
Sullivan: ``They're the eyes and ears for the workers and the eyes and ears for the cities and towns. The cities and towns are paying them to protect the work zone but at the same time facilitate the movement of traffic, safely.''
Sullivan says when he joined the Providence Police Dept. in the mid-1970s police dominated construction sites. Then in the late '80s, the law changed allowing the state DOT to use either flaggers or officers. It is unclear how much it would cost to use just flaggers. They are employees of the private construction companies and are mandated to go through eight hours of training.
Hummel: ``What about the people who look out there and say, `Boy there are a lot of police out there; is it worth the cost out there?''
Sullivan: ``The cost of safety, you can't measure the costs of safety. The voluntary compliance of the motoring public when they see a police officer or a police car - you can't measure the deterrence it has, but we know it does, it has a great deterrence. Rhode Island has a great success in work zones where the injuries are nearly zero.''
In most case the officers are paid a flat time and a half rate to work details, sometimes more if they are a supervising officer. And there is a charge for use of the department's vehicles. But each community differs and in Jamestown, the union contract says if an officer works 15 minutes or more in any hour it's counted as a full hour and paid accordingly.
So what about police officers sitting in their cars? Sullivan agrees it does not send a good message to the motoring public...
Sullivan: ``But on an individual basis I don't know that police officer is sitting in that car because in their contract they're able to sit in their car for 15 minutes every hour - some departments have that, especially on hot days like this.''
He says concern about liability now plays a role in how many officers you see on details.
Sullivan: ``If you talk to some of the constructions companies and if you ask them, `You hired a police officer?' quite a few will tell you they're looking at it as a savings. They don't want the liability of somebody running into the back of the truck and having the question were they properly set up.''
Meyer remains unconvinced.
Meyer: ``It's one thing to see them directing traffic, but it's a complete waste of money to see them sitting in a car doing absolutely nothing. I would say have the police do the police work and have the flaggers do the flagging work, simple as that.''
Something to ponder next time you're sitting in traffic.
Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.