Generally, municipalities may choose to offer an applicant employment as a police officer before sending the officer to the police academy. The new employee may be given the title of “cadet” while the employee is at the academy and a local bylaw or ordinance may set an hourly rate for cadets that is lower than that of a sworn police officer. G.L. c. 41, § 96B requires that the student officers “shall be paid the regular wages provided for the position to which he was appointed . . ..” during their time at the academy. However, in the recent decision Lanctot v. Town of Brewster, No. 22-P-259 (June 22, 2023), the Appeals Court held that the student officer must be paid at the police officer rate, notwithstanding the Town bylaw that set a lower hourly rate for “cadet.”
In Lanctot, the parties agreed that the students were entitled to be paid while they attended the police academy; the only question was the hourly rate. The students claimed that the position to which they were appointed for the purposes of section 96B was the position they would hold once they graduated, i.e., that of full-time police officer. The Town countered that they were appointed to the position of cadet, so that position’s rate governed while they attended the academy.
The Appeals Court held that section 96B’s language was unambiguous in favor of the students. “Because student officers, hired by a municipality, are appointed for the ultimate purpose of exercising police powers, student officers must logically be paid the ‘regular wages’ for the ‘position’ of a sworn police officer who exercises such powers.” Id., slip op. at 5-6. The Town’s argument was deemed to exalt form over substance, resting on the title of “cadet” when the students applied for and would become “police officers.” The designation of a lower hourly rate in the Town’s bylaw for a cadet was held to conflict with the plain language of the statute.
The decision notes that the law does not require that a student officer be employed prior to attendance. A municipality may sponsor an attendee to the academy but not employ the sponsored student. In that case, a sponsored student has not received an appointment from the municipality for the purposes of section 96B. But if the municipality chooses to hire a student, the municipality must pay the rate paid to a sworn police officer. If your municipality’s classification and compensation plan has a special hourly rate for attendees of the police academy, you should review the Appeals Court decision to confirm compliance and speak with municipal counsel if you have any questions.
It is important to note that as of this writing, the Town of Brewster’s petition for further appellate review is pending before the Supreme Judicial Court.