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WOBURN, Mass. -- Dozens of police officers disrupted the work of a road maintenance crew Tuesday when they heckled civilian flaggers who have replaced law enforcement officers at construction sites under new state rules.
Woburn Police Chief Philip Mahoney and on-duty officers had to restore order, telling the roughly 50 protesters -- off-duty officers from Woburn and surrounding communities -- to stay out of the way of the crews clearing catch basins. Tuesday was the first day the new rules affected Massachusetts Highway Department projects.
Protesters parked on the state highway and entered a posted work zone, both of which are illegal, said state Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky. One off-duty officer also drove down the street against the flow of traffic, saying he had been misdirected by a flagger.
Flaggers for at least five other sites worked unimpeded, said Paiewonsky.
"We're going to keep doing this," the commissioner said. "It's the law. We have the right under the law to use flaggers under certain conditions, and we're going to do that and we're going to continue to use police details when the conditions warrant."
Gov. Deval Patrick, who issued the new rules, said the old system unnecessarily increased costs, and that police protection was not needed at all construction sites. Critics have suggested that some officers pass the time on such shifts by sitting in their cars. They also question whether the overtime details leave the officers too mentally or physically tired for their regular shifts.
The administration's new rules set up a three-tiered system for classifying work sites. Roads with speed limits of less than 45 miles per hour are the most likely to have civilian flaggers assigned to them.
Flaggers are paid $15-$26 per hour, while police officers receive $30-$42 per hour. Most flaggers used Tuesday were paid between $15 and $19 per hour, Paiewonsky said.