By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Peering through the blue murk

The Boston Herald today tries to knock down yesterday’s Boston Globe story reporting that as many as 200 Boston police officers could be laid off because of the recession-driven budget meltdown. But it’s difficult to know exactly what is going on.

For instance, the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack writes that an aide to “enraged” (isn’t it ever thus?) Boston Mayor Tom Menino said, “It won’t be 200 police officers.” Well, what about 150? Not exactly reassuring.

For that matter, the online headline over Van Sack’s story goes quite a bit farther than her own carefully worded story: “Riled mayor Thomas M. Menino: Reports of cop layoffs untrue.” The cover line, “Menino vows to spare cops from budget ax,” strikes me as unsupported by Van Sack’s reporting as well.

Given the murk, it’s worth looking at what named sources have said. The Globe’s Donovan Slack and Maria Cramer yesterday cited “two officials” in their report that “as many as 200” officers could lose their jobs. It’s hard to know what to make of that, given that we don’t know who the “two officials” are.

But they also quote Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce as saying, “There is nothing official at this point, and it is way too premature to determine the impact on any department, including the Boston Police Department.” And Police Commissioner Ed Davis weighs in with this: “Everyone knows that if your budget is 90 percent personnel and you sustain deep cuts, then personnel would be on the table. At this point in time, it’s not something that I can comment on, because I don’t know what those numbers are going to be.”

I take Joyce’s and Davis’ comments as essentially confirming the idea that the two officials with whom the Globe spoke are knowledgeable, and that they are indeed throwing around the 200 number as a worst-case scenario, if nothing else.

Now let’s take a look at what’s on the record in Van Sack’s Herald story today. Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, tells her, “The mayor has assured me that while there are problems, there are no planned layoffs.” OK. But I don’t think anyone said there were at this point.

Joyce and Davis also pop up in the Herald story, and what they have to say is telling as well. Davis: “Somebody put this out to try to raise fear.” No doubt about it — it smacks of a political tactic. But does that mean it’s not true?

Joyce’s quote to the Herald is even more equivocal: “Any numbers are irresponsible to put out at this time, seeing as we have no idea what’s gonna happen with the state. There’s lots of employees at the Police Department. The mayor has made it clear that protecting the service to residents as much as possible is his first priority.”

Finally, the Globe’s Cramer today quotes an e-mail Davis sent out within his department following yesterday’s story: “At this time I want to be clear that no decision has been made to proceed with layoffs. Any suggestion to the contrary is premature.” That doesn’t contradict the Globe’s report that as many as 200 officers could lose their jobs, either.

So what is going on? It’s hard to say, but here’s one likely possibility. Two officials knowledgeable about discussions taking place at City Hall leaked to the Globe the possibility that as many as 200 police officers might face layoffs. More than anything, the leak was aimed at scaring Gov. Deval Patrick into ensuring sufficient local aid so that such cuts don’t have to be made.

Menino is angry — that’s a given. What we don’t know is if 1) he is genuinely angry because he didn’t want the layoff numbers to be leaked, at least not yet; 2) he is genuinely angry because the Globe’s emphasis on layoffs, rather than on Patrick’s options, puts more pressure on City Hall than he had intended; or 3) he is pretending to be angry but is actually pleased that he succeeded in floating this frightening trial balloon.

Because officials appear to be dialing back, that gives the Herald the opportunity to claim that the Globe got it wrong. The problem is that what officials are actually saying, on the record, does not contradict the notion that as many as 200 officers could be laid off if more money can’t be found.

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  1. Jerry

    This all seems to fall under the heading once known as “trial balloon.” Details TK.

  2. mike_b1

    It’s funny how often the Mayor being angry passes as the lede. In other news, Tiffany’s not robbed!

  3. O-FISH-L

    One question I’d have asked is if the city is going to layoff 10% of the patrolmen, will there be a commensurate 10% reduction in the people who supervise them: Sergeants, Lieutenants, Captains, Deputy Superintendents and Superintendents? It would seem that’s where the real savings would be.Also, Menino is front and center in the UMass television ads (not sure I’d have given him a speaking role). For someone boasting about his Bachelors degree, Menino should take the lead and suggest a pre-requisite of a Bachelors for incoming police officers, then provide an extra 2 points on promotional exams for those who earn a Masters. This would allow for elimination of the vaunted Quinn Bill and would save millions going forward.The reason he won’t do this is that military veterans now get absolute preference on the entrance exam and 2 points added on their promotional exam scores. A veteran with a GED who scores 70% on the entrance exam goes ahead of a non-veteran Ph.D who scores 100%. Menino won’t risk incurring the wrath of veterans by imposing an educational requirement, but until there is some innovative reform, the only question will be to layoff or not to layoff.

  4. Tobe

    Does this mean Boston will be down 200 detail officers? That will create a significant public safety hazard.

  5. Tony

    If it is that bad, and it might be, Boston can just have a Proposition 2 1/2 override to preserve municipal services, like every other damn city and town in the state. The fact is that Boston has never had an override or debt exclusion and had always relied on massive amounts of state aid to make ends meet. Well, things change. If the mayor doesn’t want to float an override, the city can get out of those no property tax waivers it makes with big corporations – like most of Scollay Square, which hasn’t been taxed since the 1950s, or total giveaways, like the deal the city just did with John Hancock, giving them a 10 or 20-year tax waiver, I can’t remember. Or, they can cut some of the no-show jobs in other departments if need be.

  6. John Mc

    And, as usual, when the budget needs to be tightened the politicians threaten to cut something public, like schools or cops, rather than getting rid of some of the dead weight in City Hall. Just a scare tactic to get you to OK tax increases.

  7. Pete

    Thanks Dan, for providing a much needed voice of reason on this one. It looks like the Globe was better sourced than the Herald. Aside, the BPD and the Herald are pretty cozy at times.

  8. O'Reilly

    Great post Dan making sense of these news stories for your readers.

  9. Brad

    A significant reduction in police is exactly what Boston needs.Besides the obvious benefit that maybe the cops will be too busy, ya know, trying to solve more homicides than <30% they do now…instead of soaking up lucrative traffic details……the real benefit is that Boston's crime rate will explode. And FINALLY people will stop wanting to live here. It's the only damn way we'll EVER see reasonable housing prices in this burg; get enough people to leave.Dave in "Mystic River" had it exactly right, ya know?

  10. Neil

    I’m with Fish (!), that jobs in the middle and top should be eliminated first, in the interests of saving larger numbers of boots on the ground jobs. Won’t happen of course.On the other hand, similar to Brad’s comment, there’s less police make-work to go around with the reduction in those bullshit traffic details and now no longer able to hassle pot smokers either. Maybe down by 200 is about right, to direct toward actual crime.The Globe published yet another (the third I think) sob story about how the poor police don’t know how to deal with the new leave-the-pot-smokers-alone law. One objection, for example, is that they haven’t got new ticket books yet, and the current ones don’t have a box for “marijuana offense” on them. So some police depts will not enforce the law (ie, won’t bother to write tickets for joint possession). Because it’s too hard to check off “Other” on the form. Take that!

  11. Rick in Duxbury

    You can tell for whom Dot Joyce works.way too early+it is premature=”it is way too premature to determine the impact…” Or would she say that “irregardless” of her boss?

  12. O-FISH-L

    While I understand the arguments for and against using police for details, my educated guess is that 98% are paid for by private entities (contractors, bars, utilities, Fenway, Garden etc.) Sure, those costs may be passed on to we the consumers, but for the sake of this argument, the detail issue has no significance to the City of Boston budget crisis.Except for rare street closure work performed by city agencies (DPW, Water & Sewer Commission), the police details are not paid by city funds. In fact, the city tacks on a 10%-15% "administrative fee" for dispatching a city police officer to a detail, so details are essentially a moneymaker for the city. Lastly, fewer officers means more officers in the $200k club since the same number of details will be spread among a fewer number of cops.

  13. Neil

    Fish indeed the city doesn’t pay for those details and citizens only pay for them indirectly through increased rates, fees etc. It’s a semi-facetious point of course, but without those details, and with shall we say a “de-emphasis on non-violent crime”, it may be that a reduction in the force won’t affect public safety as much as one might think. More police = more public safety is a kneejerk conclusion, but taint necessarily so.

  14. O-FISH-L

    Neil, you are indeed correct, but bear in mind that I never argued that more police = more public safety. In fact, the “Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment of 1972” which all Massachusetts police Sergeant candidates must study for the promotional exam, found “that traditional routine patrol in marked police cars does not appear to affect the level of crime. Nor does it affect the public’s feeling of security.”My main points on Dan’s original post are (a) If you reduce 200 officers, it should be from all ranks, not just patrolmen, and (b) police taffic details have little negative affect on the Boston city budget, and in fact may enhance the budget. ‘Tis all, Neil.

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