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After scandals, State Police need to restore accountability, legal specialists say

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2018

The series of scandals that has tarnished the Massachusetts State Police since last fall — most recently the alleged theft of overtime pay — speaks to an organization suffering from a breakdown of professional culture and accountability, police and legal specialists say.

“You couldn’t have an overtime fraud scheme if accountability was in place,” said Ronal W. Serpas, who served 34 years in law enforcement and was formerly police superintendent in New Orleans, police chief in Nashville, and chief of the Washington State Patrol.

The next step for a law enforcement organization in turmoil is recovery — and that sort of change of culture is never something that happens by itself, said William Bratton, who has served as the head of the Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles police departments.

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“It always has to be led,” he said.

“Peer influence works in some organizations and doesn’t work in others,” Bratton continued, in a Globe interview Wednesday. “By that, I mean peer influence, where the good guys make it clear to the bad guys or the people who are straying that it is not going to be tolerated. I’ve never been in an organization where that happens internally. It has to be that leadership makes it clear that there’s the line. You don’t cross this line.”

The responsibility to lead the department out of its morass has fallen to State Police Colonel Kerry A. Gilpin, who became its superintendent in November.

Gilpin faced the statewide media Tuesday to announce that 20 active troopers and one retiree face sanctions in an overtime abuse scandal, in which troopers are alleged to have logged hours they did not work. The most egregious alleged violators put in for as many as 100 no-show shifts.

Gilpin referred the matter to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office for investigation and possible prosecution.

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“For us to fulfill our mission as a police agency, we must have the public’s trust,” Gilpin said Tuesday.

The overtime imbroglio was the latest in a litany of embarrassments for the agency. The department’s last superintendent, Richard McKeon, and his deputy, Francis Hughes, retired in November after revelations that McKeon ordered an arrest report altered to remove embarrassing information about the daughter of a judge. Governor Charlie Baker and Healey have each announced investigations into that matter.

Reports in February said that Trooper Leigha Genduso was a coconspirator in a 2007 drug case who avoided charges by testifying, yet was subsequently hired by the State Police. A day later, two more high-ranking State Police officials linked to the report redactions – Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Risteen and Major Susan Anderson — retired suddenly. Genduso, who multiple sources said was Risteen’s former girlfriend, was then suspended.

Another trooper was suspended this month for allegedly posting racist rants, while yet another was relieved of duty for allegedly coming to work drunk.

The Legislature’s top leaders are raising the specter of hauling officials into oversight hearings to address the scandals.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office said the Winthrop Democrat is meeting with Gilpin on Thursday to discuss the “serious concerns” about the force. The meeting had been scheduled in recent weeks.

“[DeLeo] believes that legislative oversight is not only appropriate, it is constitutionally required as part of the House’s responsibility for appropriating taxpayer funds,” his office said in a statement to the Globe. “Speaker DeLeo will await the conclusion of the newly announced audit and other ongoing reviews before making a determination on how to proceed.”

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Senate President Harriette L. Chandler, too, said the Legislature could ultimately bring extra scrutiny on the department. The Worcester Democrat said the State Police is filled with “good people who do incredible work,” and she lauded Governor Charlie Baker for taking a “strong look” at the recent problems.

Serpas, now a professor at Loyola University New Orleans, said top leaders in a struggling department need to set and enforce ironclad rules to ensure accountability. He suggested a “one and done” rule for officers who lie: A lie about anything related to your job or on any written document is a firing offense in the very first instance. “You’re a police officer; your word puts people in jail,” he said. “You can’t lie. The courts have backed up termination as a first-time punishment for lying.”

A second ironclad rule should be a no-tolerance policy for officers who witness police misconduct by others and fail to report it, he said, speaking generally and not specifically about the Massachusetts State Police.

Serpas said state police forces around the country generally promote top leaders from within, which can make enforcing accountability more difficult. “An outside leader brought in without the long friendships that can erode accountability can often more easily confront things that need to be changed,” he said.

Under Massachusetts law, however, the superintendent of the State Police must come from within the department.

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Gilpin “walked into a hornets’ nest” when she got the job last November, but the fact that she came from inside the agency should not inhibit her ability to make changes, said former Boston police officer Tom Nolan. She has been with the State Police for about 23 years.

“The people inside who are capable of affecting change are known to the people in the organization” said Nolan, a professor of criminology and director of graduate programs in criminology at Merrimack College. “You have to identify the people who are able to affect major cultural change” and put them in positions to do so. “The vast majority of officers in the Mass. State Police take their responsibilities seriously. I have to think they are more upset than the general public” about the scandals.

Nolan said the Massachusetts State Police has “long been a closed shop” with its internal workings “out of the glare of the public eye for years.” A “culture of secrecy” is the kind of atmosphere that can permit a scandal to take root. “There’s a tacit code of silence that what goes on in the organization is not to be talked about with anyone outside the agency.”

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former New York police officer, sees a larger problem nationwide in the devaluing of policing as a “calling, a mission, a special job.” He says he sees evidence of this in modern police recruitment materials, which often stress the competitive pay and benefits, rather than the nature of the public service police officers are hired perform.

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“When policing is just a job, it has profound implications,” he said. “It’s a major problem, not limited to police, that agencies over time tend to operate to the benefit of the employees. What becomes valued are perks and benefits, and there can be a race among employees to see who can get to the top and accumulate as much as possible.”

Nearly 250 Massachusetts troopers — or about 12 percent of the force — made more than $200,000 last year, often by working long overtime shifts or taking on multiple details, the Globe has reported.

O’Donnell said police should be “well compensated, comfortably compensated” for their work, but should not be permitted to enhance their incomes by performing private details. While on a detail, he said, an officer who has sworn to serve the general public is instead serving the interest of some individual, or some company.

“How many officers are more energetic and focused on their off-duty work than their core work?” he said. “What is policing if it is not about police work? These are existential questions for police departments.”

Globe correspondent Matt Stout contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark