If, as Gov. Deval Patrick is fond of pointing out, civilian flaggers can safely direct motorists around traffic projects in the other 49 states, it doesn't make sense not to employ them here in the Bay State.
Still, there are situations where having a uniformed officer on duty makes sense. It's also a fact that the opportunity officers have to earn extra money by working these details has helped cities and towns keep the lid on regular police salaries.
Our guess is that civilian flaggers are here to stay. So the challenge facing state and local officials, the police brass and the unions representing the uniformed officers, at this point is to devise a system that protects the public and those working in the roadway without breaking the bank or unfairly penalizing law enforcement personnel.
Here on the North Shore union officials and legislators have of late indicated a willingness to begin addressing the problem, motivated in part by the large construction projects currently taking place on Route 128 and elsewhere.
State Reps. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, and John Keenan, D-Salem, are proposing an amendment to the state budget mandating civilian flaggers be paid at least $10 an hour less than detail officers.
We agree the current practice, which has in some instances resulted in civilian flaggers being paid more than police, is outrageous. But if Speliotis and Keenan are serious about saving taxpayers money, they will seek to address the root cause of the problem — the state's prevailing wage law.
Meanwhile, police unions in Danvers and Salem have indicated a willingness to change some of the expensive practices — like the four-hour minimum — that have been allowed to inflate the cost of police details in the past. That, too, is reason for encouragement.
In the meantime, local police chiefs need to get involved, setting clear and reasonable standards for when a police detail is required for public safety reasons; and emphasizing to the rank-and-file that if a detail is required, they need to be out in the street actually directing traffic.