Faced with new state police training requirements, some auxiliary units disband
Come July, some Bay State police departments are set to have smaller footprints as their volunteer units go offline.
June 30 is the deadline for the first wave of reserve officers, including part-time officers and volunteers whose last names begin with the letters A through H, to complete new training requirements set forth by the Municipal Police Training Committee in accordance with the police reform law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in late 2020.
But, citing logistical issues with completing the training, some departments are choosing instead to shutter their auxiliary units, which are staffed by volunteers who typically assist with traffic direction, provide security at community events and supplement staffing in emergencies or when call volume is high.
In Southbridge, one such community, the chief calls the decision a difficult one that could have ripple effects on the department's workforce pipeline. In Haverhill, the loss of volunteers is expected to affect the cost of security at community fundraising events.
By the count of the Massachusetts Volunteer Law Enforcement Officer Association, six communities — Abington, Belmont, Southbridge, Randolph, Lawrence and Wayland — have already disbanded their auxiliary units. At least seven more plan to disband at the end of June.
Marc Spigel, president of the association, attributed the closures partly to the inconvenience of offered training times.
"We all looked forward to the training, so the training is not the issue," Spigel told State House News Service. "The issue is the Municipal Police Training Committee then layered on top of that a number of rules, stipulations that made it impossible for us to do it."
Under the new training framework the MPTC developed in response to the reform legislation, reserve police must record 2,400 hours of patrol time as an officer with power of arrest. But Spigel said many auxiliary units, including his own in Framingham, don't make arrests except in emergency situations with a full-time officer present, leaving volunteers unable to meet this requirement.
Spigel said another barrier is the logistics of completing in-person training through the newly established Bridge Academy program, which entails 120 hours of hands-on instruction around firearms, defensive tactics and emergency vehicle operation. Most sessions occur during the workday, he said, which isn't feasible for volunteers who often hold 9-to-5 jobs outside of their service as an auxiliary officer.
He noted that the training schedule could also pose problems for small departments that rely on part-time officers, since many of these officers work other jobs but must complete the same training.
"It's a real loss for the communities that have had volunteers," Spigel said.
In response to a request for comment, Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, one of the driving forces behind the 2020 police reform legislation, noted that lawmakers built assistance into the bill to try to ease the burden of training costs on cities and towns and attempted to bring requirements into effect gradually.
Officers whose last names begin with I through P or Q through Z have until 2023 and 2024, respectively, to become certified through the Bridge Academy.
"Fundamentally, any sworn officer carrying a badge and a gun must have proper training. That's why we set aside $1 million for this year, to further assist municipalities in getting officers the supplemental training they need," Chang-Díaz, also a Democratic candidate for governor, said in a statement. "The 2020 law also provided a sheltered period to allow departments and officers time to meet the new training standards."
According to a spokesperson from the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, 900 student officers are currently enrolled in the Bridge Academy, while 3,200 officers were identified by the Municipal Police Training Committee as needing additional training to comply with the legislation. The spokesperson said 40% of the curriculum can be completed online, and in-person training is offered at no cost in multiple locations around the state.
Municipal Police Training Committee Executive Director Robert Ferullo said the committee "is working diligently to advance the mandates established by the police reform law, including its primary objective of uniform training standards for all members of law enforcement."
"The MPTC created the Bridge Academy to deliver standardized training and facilitate the new certification process for officers who currently perform police duties and hold the power of arrest but have never completed a full-time police academy," he said in a statement.
Ferullo continued, "To support officer convenience and access, the bridge program offers a robust online curriculum and flexible in-person class schedules held at multiple regional facilities. Working in close collaboration with our many stakeholders, the MPTC is confident that together the law enforcement community will achieve the successful implementation of this landmark legislation."
Southbridge will be left with two or three auxiliary officers once the first training deadline passes, according to Chief Shane Woodson. He said these officers are able to stay on because they are retired full-time officers whose certifications are still valid. The department ultimately decided to disband its auxiliary unit because only one volunteer has decided to complete the Bridge Academy training.
Woodson has notified local nonprofits and organizations that the department will no longer be able to provide volunteer security details for their events.
"We don't have the financial ability to maintain it because we can't pay them to complete this training, the town itself," Woodson said. "And we don't have any candidates that would be willing to volunteer those kind of hours to complete the required training."
Haverhill Police Captain Michael Wrenn noted that losing auxiliary officers potentially comes with a price tag for either municipalities or local organizations. In the past, when detail officers were needed for a fundraiser or community event, Wrenn said the department could send a combination of auxiliary and full-time officers to reduce expenses.
At $300 per officer, a detail of 15 full-time officers is steep compared to the cost of 10 auxiliary officers and five full-timers.
"The savings [with auxiliary officers] is substantial," Wrenn wrote by email.
Woodson said the loss of Southbridge's auxiliary unit is also the loss of a staffing pipeline. Serving in the unit gave volunteer officers an opportunity to try out police work while also allowing the department to gauge who might be a good fit to go full-time.
Working without the auxiliary unit will be an adjustment, he said.
"It was a very difficult decision. When I started here more than 25 years ago, it was here, it was a robust program. It's always been integral to the operations of the department and the town, and all the nonprofits that we work with for many, many, many years," Woodson said. "It was not easy."