Police officials push insurance surcharge to fund training programs

By Michael Norton
State Houe News Service / May 20, 2011

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Promoting an auto insurance surcharge as the solution, police officials told lawmakers yesterday that the police training system is nearing a crisis stage across Massachusetts, with specialty training halted and insufficient opportunities available to 17,000 municipal officers.

“We don’t want a crisis, and that’s what it’s coming to,’’ Police Chief Mark Leahy of Northborough told the Public Safety Committee.

Leahy said the police training curriculum has not been reviewed since the 1990s and warned that existing levels of training, hampered by budget cuts, leave police vulnerable to lawsuits and susceptible to becoming involved in tragedies that he said could be averted with an investment in training.

Legislation pushed by Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, and Wayne Sampson, executive director of the association, would produce training funds with a surcharge on auto insurance policies that the officials said would add between $2 and $2.50 per year to policies.

Two committee members agreed with the police officials that police training needs must be addressed.

“The time has passed since this should have passed,’’ said Representative Cleon Turner, Democrat of Dennis.

“We’ve got to do it some way,’’ said the committee cochairman, Senator James Timilty, Democrat of Walpole.

Governor Deval Patrick included the auto insurance surcharge in his budget proposal for fiscal 2012 filed in January, calling it a “modest assessment’’ similar to the property insurance surcharge used to fund firefighter training.

Neither the House nor the Senate adopted the governor’s proposal in their budget proposals.

But while the House offered no alternative funding mechanism, the Senate on Wednesday proposed tacking a $5 fee onto all moving violation traffic tickets.

As a tradeoff for taxpayers, the Senate has also proposed making the $25 fee for challenging a traffic violation refundable if the ticket is dismissed.

Sampson said the auto insurance surcharge would generate about $8 million, funds that would be split between municipal police and the State Police. He said areas that have been casualties of the lack of funds include training in interrogation, homicide, rape, and detective work.

Other bills on the committee agenda yesterday sought to improve police training when dealing with individuals suffering from mental illnesses or autism spectrum disorder. Sampson said those bills included worthwhile goals, but may be impossible to implement without additional funding.

Two teenagers with autism testified before the committee. Lydia Brown, 17, testified in favor of legislation she said was produced in response to reports from Arkansas and other states about mistaken arrests and killings of autistic people by law enforcement.

“I seem very competent here because I’ve been here and I’m comfortable here, but if I were walking home and were stopped by a cop and he was talking very fast and had lights flashing, I would probably not express myself as well or be as competent,’’ Brown said.