Easthampton moves to hire civilian flaggers to fill vacant police detail jobs

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 06-22-2023 4:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON — With open trenches, rough terrain and orange cones and reflective barrels in full bloom at numerous housing and infrastructure project sites, it’s no surprise to anyone that much of the city is under construction.

However, with so many projects underway and not as many police officers available to direct traffic, Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti said keeping traffic flowing poses a challenge. The situation has been so dire that on occasion work has either been delayed or rescheduled, Department of Public Works Director Greg Nuttelman said.

“We need folks to do it and my police officers are taxed,” Alberti said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “I can’t go to Northampton or Holyoke or Westfield to get police officers because they’re in the same exact situation we’re in.”

To keep traffic moving when police officers are in short supply, Alberti has proposed hiring civilian traffic control monitors, sometimes known as flaggers. Workers who qualify for these positions would fill traffic details that the department can’t fill with current or retired officers.

Alberti drafted an ordinance, approved by the council on Wednesday, that provides guidance for the essential functions, duties and responsibilities of the role. He said Easthampton is the second municipality in the state behind Taunton to create such an ordinance.

What is a traffic control officer?

Under the city’s new ordinance, the responsibilities of a traffic control officer include directing “vehicular and pedestrian traffic through or around construction zones, informing motorists of possible detour routes, reporting disobedient drivers to law enforcement officials, and answering motorists’ questions.”

These hires won’t be sworn police officers ore members of the Police Department, though they would be under the supervision of a superior officer in the department. They are considered per diem — pay can exceed $50 an hour depending on the job — and at-will employees with no set hours and no benefits, and they are not eligible for unemployment.

“A traffic control officer will not carry a gun. They don’t have police powers. They’re civilians utilized to do traffic,” Alberti explained.

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Though Massachusetts in 2008 became the last state in the U.S. to allow civilian flaggers instead of police at construction sites, state law currently requires police details to be used in all construction zones located on “high-speed” roads. The law also does not require municipalities to use civilian flaggers on “low-speed” or “low-traffic” roads.

Neighboring communities are currently using civilian flaggers, mostly retired police officers, but Alberti said Easthampton’s ordinance codifies the position and makes the guidelines clear.

Qualified applicants must to be at least 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, possess a valid Massachusetts Class D motor vehicle operator’s license, and pass a job-related background, medical examination and drug screening, as well as an interview.

“Nothing radical is happening here. This is basically something that the rest of the country has been doing for decades and requires very little additional training or skill sets,” said At-large Councilor Brad Riley.

Applicants also must have experience with traffic control — they are required under the ordinance to have received training from the Massachusetts Police Training Committee or its equivalent and to have been previously employed in positions in law enforcement, parole, corrections, campus police, public safety dispatch or probation, but certification by the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission is not required.

The ordinance also states that at the chief’s discretion, people may also be eligible if they have completed the state-approved Flagger Certification Program or the Massachusetts Police Training Committee Traffic Control class.

Traffic control officers are also required to maintain a CPR certification.

Alberti said the ordinance does not violate the police union’s contract because officers retain the first right of refusal on these road details. Traffic control officers will be offered positions only after regularly employed police officers and retired police officers have declined.

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said the ordinance makes good sense for public safety and project management.

Several councilors also lauded Alberti’s efforts.

“This (ordinance) is a step to keep the city moving forward. This is a good step for the community,” said President Homar Gomez.

Vice President Salem Derby also noted that the position provides the public access to a good-paying job as civilians will be paid the same amount as officers are for the work.

Derby, the chairperson of the council’s Ordinance Committee, added that the ordinance was reviewed by the city’s solicitor and recommended by the Ordinance Committee, 3-0.

Alberti said he had already completed an internal policy for the position, so job postings could be available to civilians, if first declined by officers, at any time.

“The traffic control civilian will help the department, help the city and help the traffic significantly,” he said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>