BOSTON (AP) – Hundreds of police officers and union officials packed a hearing room to protest the Patrick administration’s plan to use civilian flaggers at some roadside construction sites.

The hearing turned testy at times, as police jeered those testifying in favor of the measure and union officials accused Gov. Deval Patrick of playing politics with the public’s safety.

“The draft regulations show that the administration’s real priority is to kowtow to the media’s hunger for a pound of flesh and to protect special interests,” said Hugh Cameron, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police. “The draft regulations will diminish public safety.”

Police unions have fiercely defended the lucrative details, saying civilian flaggers don’t have the same legal authority as officers and could not respond to an accident or crime near a construction site.

Some police unions have rushed to try to lock in their access to details during ongoing contract negotiations with cities and towns.

Robert Haynes, president of the state AFL-CIO, said the draft regulations were also a blow to collective bargaining in Massachusetts and took decision-making out of the hands of local chiefs of police.

“This is a political document, not a document about what’s in the public interest,” he said. “This process has been truncated and suspect.”

The regulations set up a three-tiered system for classifying work sites. Those on heavily traveled roads with speed limits of 45 miles per hour or more would be the least likely to see civilian flaggers, followed by less heavily trafficked roads.

Roads with speed limits of less than 45 miles per hour would be the most likely to have civilian flaggers assigned to them. Only a third of state highway miles have posted speed limits under 45.

The decision whether to use police details, civilian flaggers or traffic control devices would be made on a case-by-case basis by the Massachusetts Highway Department.

The proposal had its backers at the hearing.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, said the proposal was a start and would save money and start to bring Massachusetts in line with the rest of the nation.

But he also said the regulations were fundamentally flawed because they applied only to state-managed road projects, not those managed by cities and towns.

“It allows a massive loophole for municipal police officers, whose collective bargaining agreements can supersede this regulation,” Stergios said.

“These collective bargaining agreements lock in unnecessary police details for many roads with low speeds.”

Legislation approved by the House and Senate and signed by Patrick limited the use of civilian flag bearers to state projects to avoid conflicts with local laws or collective bargaining agreements.

Police tried to shout down another supporter of the regulations, David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University, who argued that the cost of flaggers will be significantly less than police details once competition kicks in.

At any given time there about 200-300 state-controlled roadway projects. Civilian flaggers will direct traffic, but won’t have the same powers as police officers to pull over motorists or write up tickets.

How many of those police details could be replaced by civilian flaggers would depend on where the construction site is located.

The state spends about $25 million a year on police details. Initial estimates suggested the state could save as much as $5 million a year with the expanded use of civilian flaggers.

Officials said at first the flaggers would be drawn from employees already working for the state who would be retrained and equipped with flags and orange safety vests.

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