I-Team: Alternative to police details?

Drive around Massachusetts or Rhode Island and you'll see them on highways, roads and even side streets: police officers watching over construction sites, road projects and utility work.

But is there a better way?

"In the end, whether you're a consumer or you're a taxpayer, it doesn't matter what pocket it comes out of. You are the individual who is paying," said Mike Widmer with the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Widmer said the practice is costly.

"It costs taxpayers across the state tens of millions of dollars, probably more than $100 million statewide," Widmer said.

What's more, the NBC 10 I-Team got a tip that some police officers in Swansea called in sick, and then showed up a few hours later to work paid police details. With another officer filling in on overtime, that can get expensive for taxpayers.

The I-Team dug through timecard records. In the past three years, seven of Swansea's 31 officers called in sick and then worked a detail in the same 24-hour period.

"We're going to move forward. We're going to be better," Swansea Police Chief George Arruda said.

The chief said some of the officers in question had legitimate explanations. As for the others?

"If someone calls in sick, they're not authorized to work a detail. If it happens in the future, they will be suspended," Arruda said.

"Once you have a lucrative benefit like this built into the system, impossible to change, then these kinds of abuses inevitably take place," Widmer said.

The numbers in Swansea are relatively small. But Widmer said he believes Massachusetts's detail system as a whole deserves a second look.

One option that can save money is the use of civilian flaggers.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law in 2008 that allows flaggers on sites that aren't in high traffic areas or dangerous conditions.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation told NBC 10 that's saved the state $45 million over the past five years.

But critics say Massachusetts could be saving a lot more. Police details are still required in many cases, like on any road with a speed limit over 45, or if a police union contract requires it.

That means paid officers are still the norm at thousands of sites each year.

In Swansea, that costs a minimum of $160 for every job.

In some cases, private businesses pay for the extra security. But since most road work is publicly funded, taxpayers are often footing the bill.