Making Troopers Transparent: At What Cost?

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In May 2018, The Boston Globe reported on its effort to gain access to information about troopers through a lawsuit aimed at the Massachusetts Department of State Police (DSP) as part of an overall effort to hold the DSP more accountable.

In light of various scandals, increased transparency in the beleaguered agency is critical to restore public trust.

However, too much transparency may put troopers at risk in some cases. The key is finding the appropriate balance between privacy and transparency.  After all, how can we hold the agency accountable if we have no insight into what its employees are doing on the state’s dime?

A compromise is in order.

As an example, California discloses the names and area where state police officers are assigned. With that information, residents can access the general salary structure of officers by region.

Another compromise would be to follow the practice of states such as Oregon and Pennsylvania, which withhold the names of officers during investigations at the judge’s discretion. This protects the troopers but still provides a level of transparency that helps ensure public trust.

The lack of transparency in Massachusetts restricts citizens’ ability to determine whether their tax dollars are spent effectively. For example, as reported by the state and the Boston Globe, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have four state troopers assigned to each island, in addition to more than 60 local police officers. The state troopers work out of multi-million dollar facilities and commanders and their families and are provided with housing courtesy of the taxpayers.

According to the Boston Globe, there are “maybe two incidents a day, perhaps two arrests a month… giving troopers on the island duties more aligned with those of a private security force.” Eileen McAnney, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, has pushed for that to change. “It sounds like there are a lot of resources that could be reallocated and we need to have that conversation,” she told The Boston Globe. She believes that there is very little need for four state troopers on each island– each earning more than $90,000 annually — especially considering low crime rates.

The State Police Department refuses to release names of troopers and their troop numbers. Even obtaining the number of troopers on the island was a challenging for the Boston Globe.

DSP justifies the lack of transparency, claiming that making the information public would put troopers at risk. While MassOpenBooks can provide the names and salaries of all state troopers, the information does not include troop and location information because it is not publicly available.  Information from MassAnalysis, provides insight to crime statistics on the island.  (Show chart and draw conclusions).

Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket’s populations vary depending on the time of year. During the winter, the number drops to as low as 10,000, but in the summer months the population spikes to as high as 50,000. On MassAnalysis, the total crime rates on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are 380 and 332 incidents per 100,000 residents respectively. Even accounting for the four months out of the year that the islands see 50,000 people, these numbers are very low compared to the Massachusetts average (well over 1,000 incidents per 100,000 residents).

When it comes to these island resorts, the number of state troopers should be commensurate with the (lack of) crime.