, Newburyport, MA

December 24, 2013

Town grapples with debate on police residency


---- — SALISBURY — With the issue of required in-state residency still in effect in Salisbury, some police officers may soon be grappling with how the civil service mandate might affect their careers if they continue to serve on the force.

At October’s Town Meeting, voters tabled an article to eliminate the civil service regulation requiring Salisbury police officers to live in Massachusetts. Town Manager Neil Harrington placed the article on the warrant after members of Salisbury’s police union approached him about it, he said.

“A majority of the police officers in the union voted in favor of putting the article on the warrant,” Harrington said. “Of all the options the union explored on the topic, this was the one they preferred to go forward with.”

Unlike the Salisbury Fire Department, Salisbury Police Department is a civil service agency and must follow its rules, one of which requires all police officers to live in Massachusetts within 10 miles of the community in which they serve.

On behalf of many officers wanting the change, Harrington placed the article asking voters for permission to send a Home Rule petition to the Legislature requesting the removal of the in-state residency restriction. Many believe the rule limits their living options more than other communities, since Salisbury borders New Hampshire to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Harrington agreed with the officers who approached him, as did Salisbury police Chief Thomas Fowler. In addition, the residency restriction doesn’t apply to any other town employee, Harrington said, because no other Salisbury department falls under Massachusetts Civil Service.

At the Oct. 28 Town Meeting, Fowler explained that he and the majority of his officers supported removing the civil service regulation, but after Salisbury Sgt. Chuck Scione, a Salisbury resident, rose and spoke forcefully against eliminating the law, Town Meeting decided it needed more time to consider the issue and tabled it.

It’s common knowledge that some Salisbury police officers already live in nearby New Hampshire communities, which could leave them in a quandary as to their future in Salisbury. That’s particularly true when it comes to who will take on leadership roles, like that of sergeant and lieutenant, who will be appointed in the near future.

According to both Harrington and Fowler, where an officer lives will have little to do with who is chosen for those jobs. The two intend “to promote the most qualified people to leadership positions,” no matter where they live. However, if those chosen to be the next sergeant and lieutenant don’t live in Massachusetts, Harrington and Fowler said, they’ll have to decide whether to take the job and move in state, or turn down the appointment and look elsewhere for career opportunities.

Fowler spent more than 20 years in law enforcement in Connecticut, a state that doesn’t have civil service. Since arriving in town, he’s learned civil service’s value in preventing cronyism and fostering an atmosphere of fairness based on test scores, he said.

But he’s also worried the impact the in-state residency rule could have on good officers. Some might leave.

“The drawback of civil service’s residency rule is in losing good officers because it restricts their ability for promotion and our ability to hire the most qualified people,” Fowler said. “I intend to promote the most qualified candidate to move the department forward. If it happens to be someone who doesn’t happen to live in the commonwealth, he’ll have to make a decision.”

Fowler said law enforcement has changed from the days when longevity and seniority were considered the most important factors when it comes to promotions. In recent years, with many colleges offering criminal justice degrees, police agencies are seeing more educated candidates applying for both leadership positions and entry level jobs.

“And you have to balance education and experience when it comes to potential promotions,” Fowler said.

Fowler hasn’t made any decision on who will be promoted to any positions, he said, nor has he made any promises. He’s going to make two promotional lists, one to bring on a new sergeant and one for the lieutenant’s job.

He’ll use an assessment center hiring model for the lieutenant’s positions, as well as the sergeant, instead of just using officers scores on the civil service sergeant’s exam. The assessment center route includes a test and extensive interview by a board of three out-of-town police officials who quiz candidates on how they’d handle critical incidents that could happen in the field.

In many civil service departments in communities along state borders, the in-state residency regulation is sometimes overlooked. It doesn’t usually rear up until promotions are in the mix and complaints are filed by an in-state candidate who gets passed over for an out of state candidate.

That was the case about 10 years ago at the Haverhill Fire Department when an in-state firefighter filed a grievance after being passed over for a lieutenant’s position for another firefighter who lived in New Hampshire. After exposing the out-of-state residency of the firefighter, the city discovered a high-ranking fire department official was also living in New Hampshire, forcing him to come back to Massachusetts or quit.

The residency issue and its impact on prestigious and lucrative promotions have caused schisms in departments in other communities at times. But, Fowler said, that won’t be acceptable in Salisbury.

“This is a small department,” Fowler said, “and even if there are differences, the officers here need to be professionals and work together every day.”