Bedford Police Chief John Fisher says separating his department from the state civil service system will help fill open positions faster and with “the best people available.”
The Special Town Meeting on Monday, Nov. 6 includes a warrant article to revoke the civil service provisions for patrolmen. If approved, Fisher said in an interview on Monday, he expects to begin independent efforts to hire three new entry-level officers in December.
“People were already talking about this before I got here,” said Fisher, who became chief in September 2022. He said the article is supported by the Bedford Police Patrolmen’s Association. The change does not affect the civil service affiliation of the department’s nine supervisors.
Under civil service, member departments hire from a statewide list of candidates who have passed a test. Fisher said that he received the most recent list in July with the results of a test administered in March. He said he was able to fill two of the department’s five vacancies. Other prospects accepted positions in other departments or failed background checks.
Burlington, Concord, and Lexington police have separated from civil service, and Billerica is in the process, Fisher said, which means “these departments are getting the first crack at candidates while I wait for test results.”
Bedford police affiliated with civil service back in 1937, when “cronyism was a real problem,” Fisher explained; now, “we have policies and procedures making that a non-issue.”
Officer Jason Kennedy, president of the patrolmen’s union, said his group unanimously endorses approval of the article. “Getting qualified candidates – that’s the name of the game now,” Kennedy said. “We are trying to keep pace with these other towns around us and it’s hard under the civil service process. This seems like the best thing for the department and for the town.”
Bedford police affiliated with civil service back in 1937, when “cronyism was a real problem,” Fisher explained. Now, “we have policies and procedures making that a non-issue.” Also, civil service no longer has a role in helping officers challenge decertification, after passage in 2020 of comprehensive criminal-justice reform.
Prospects still will be tested, Fisher said, but through a private agency rather than civil service. “We can work quickly and flexibly to identify people right out of college, right out of the military.”
Also, separation would release the department from an age ceiling of 32 for new patrol officers, expanding the pool to prospects considering a career change. Without civil service rules, “we will be a lot more proactive to getting people in the door,” Fisher said. (A separate article, if approved, will result in opening entry-level firefighting positions to applicants older than 32. The amendment will need approval by the Legislature.)
“We are going to be able to look at a broader pool,” Fisher asserted. The current system “benefits test-takers.”
Test results shouldn’t be the sole criterion for considering new hires, Fisher said. He recalled interviewing high-scorers at a previous department, and found some lacked “people skills – compassion and understanding. I’m interested in people who want to be in Bedford, and who have the integrity and intelligence to do the job.”
Fisher talked about the challenges of scheduling around so many vacant positions. “These officers don’t always want to work more overtime. They would like to be home once in a while.”
In Bedford, “we already have enough impediments,” Fisher said. “It’s expensive to live here, and this is not the easiest profession to come into.” Regardless, he continued, “The people we have are phenomenal and this place is top notch.”