Is Massachusetts getting the most for its law enforcement dollar?

IF there is any truth in the old saying, ``There's safety in numbers,'' Massachusetts -- especially Greater Boston -- should be one of the safest places in the nation. On a per capita basis, the Bay State appears to have more police than almost anywhere. But despite this and the unquestioned dedication of most of those involved, the commonwealth may not be getting as much as it could for its money.

It's a case of perhaps too many police forces, some of them with similar responsibilities. At the state and regional level, for example, besides 1,064 state police, there are 191 Registry of Motor Vehicle inspectors, 74 capitol police, 121 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) police, and 580 Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) police.

The effectiveness of law enforcement here might be better served by eliminating or merging some of these. The MBTA and MDC forces are particularly hard to justify. Patrol of Greater Boston roadways could be taken over by the local police. Similarly, municipal police could handle public safety on the transit lines as they did before the MBTA force was established.

Such a transfer of responsibility needn't cost MBTA and MDC officers their jobs, since they could be shifted to similar beats on various municipal forces.

But nothing seems likely to happen unless the public demands it, because the police forces involved are so politically laden at the top that most legislators want no part of it. And it's doubtful Gov. Michael S. Dukakis would do so. After all, in his 1982 gubernatorial comeback the union representing members of the MDC was among the first to climb on his political bandwagon. It endorsed Mr. Dukakis long before the Democratic primary, when he bested then-Gov. Edward J. King for the nomination .

Whatever prospects there might have been for Dukakis to seek even modest changes in the MDC, they were hardly boosted by Republican Raymond Shamie's recent call for its abolition.

The agency's future should not be based on anything that might be construed as partisan considerations. Yet a large ``gone out of business'' notice on the MDC's door might be the logical next step, following last July's transfer of its sewage-disposal and water-supply operations to the new Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

And the MDC's reputation was considerably clouded recently when State Inspector General Joseph Barresi cited mismanagement and incompetence in its project engineering and suggested the work be turned over to another agency.

The MDC's parks and recreation functions could easily be moved to the State Department of Environmental Quality Management. Tenured parks employees could be transferred with all rights protected.

The patronage patriots, with which this agency has been generously sprinkled over the years, could be freed, with ``thank you'' notes, to seek employment elsewhere.

In fairness to MDC Commissioner William Geary, the agency's shortcomings existed long before he took over in January 1983. Surely he has tried to upgrade its image through improved administration, better upkeep of facilities, and parkland expansions. But the agency remains a costly collection of regional activities that could be reassigned elsewhere in state government, where the influence of patronage might be less conspicuous.

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