IT WAS an alarming report — a body found on a boat docked in the Seaport section of South Boston. The Boston police, Massport Police, and State Police all rushed to the scene. And then, they bickered.
“For an hour and a half, we argued over whose body and whose jurisdiction it was,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans recently recalled, in an interview with the Globe.
It was not the first such spat between the agencies. And it would not be the last.
For years now, the three police forces have engaged in a petty turf war that has been both an impediment to justice and an embarrassment to law enforcement. The Legislature must step in and settle this ridiculous situation.
The spat, like virtually everything else on the waterfront, is ultimately about real estate. Massport, an independent public agency, owns big swaths of the Seaport, and the State Police and Massport Police have jurisdiction over those properties, while the Boston Police Department patrols the rest of the district. The result is a hodgepodge of law enforcement, with all the friction and miscommunication that inevitably results.
More reasonable models of shared jurisdiction hold sway in other parts of the city — along Morrissey Boulevard and the Jamaicaway, for instance. The State Police handle the roads in these places, while the city police cover the sidewalks, businesses, and houses. Evans, the Boston police commissioner, says he only wants the same arrangement along the waterfront. It’s not about seizing full control of the district, in other words. It’s about splitting up the work in a more rational way.
His vision makes sense: The Boston police are better positioned to handle domestic disturbances and bar fights than the State Police. “We really are trained as community officers,” Evans says. “They’re more of a paramilitary organization, who are used to dealing with the highway.
“I don’t know of anywhere in the country,” he adds, “where a police agency is prevented, in their [own] city, from patrolling a major part of it.”
Evans bristles with a bit of the territoriality that makes this whole fight so maddening. But fundamentally, he’s right. The Seaport is part of Boston — a crucial part of Boston, with its booming innovation sector — and there is a certain logic to uniformity of services. If the city oversees the licensing of bars, for instance, its police force should be able to keep tabs on them and report any chronic trouble.
The State Police have declined comment on the situation of late, under orders from Governor Charlie Baker to come to an accommodation with the Boston police, amid a series of unflattering news reports about this rift and other, more serious issues, regarding the state agency, including overtime abuse and a high-level effort to alter a police report to avoid embarrassing the daughter of a judge.
But they’ve never offered a particularly cogent defense of the current policing arrangement, which was established by law in the mid-1990s. The prime motivation seems to be hanging onto power and, more specifically, hanging onto lucrative Seaport details.
Lawmakers have been unwilling to cross the State Police — and the State Police union — until now. But Evans insists the Boston police have no interest in taking over Seaport details. That should be taken at face value — and should be the catalyst for change.