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Mayor faulted for lack of diversity in top cops

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Although the numbers of black, Latino and Asian officers on Boston’s police force have increased slightly, high-ranking black and Latino officers have been marginalized in the department’s command structure during the 16 years of the Menino administration — and the blame lies with the mayor, according to the leader of a group that represents minority police.

“The mayor has done nothing to support diversity,” Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) President Larry Ellison told the Banner.

Of 43 lieutenants on the force, there are just four African Americans, two Latinos and one Asian, according to BPD statistics.

There has never been a black or Latino superintendent-in-chief or commissioner. While cities across the state have been headed by black and Latino officers — including Cambridge and Lawrence — Boston has never broken that barrier.

After taking over as president of MAMLEO in January, Ellison wrote Menino a letter requesting a meeting, but has not yet received a response. Ellison said he was not surprised, though.

“Menino has never met with a MAMLEO president in the 16 years he’s been mayor,” Ellison said. “He chooses to meet with the ministers, but never with MAMLEO.”

MAMLEO’s calls for diversity haven’t entirely fallen on deaf ears. Ellison and other officers from the organization met with Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis earlier this year. After the meeting, Davis released a statement pledging to work to diversify the command staff.

But so far, the only major change has been that job openings within the department are now posted publicly, rather than publicized by word of mouth, according to Ellison.

“This is what they’re supposed to do anyway when there’s a position open,” he said.

Former BPD Deputy Superintendent and Area B Commander William R. Celester, now retired, said he’s not confident that Davis will make any substantive changes without the mayor’s imprimatur.

“You have to understand that this commissioner doesn’t make the decisions,” Celester said. “Basically, it’s a dictatorship.”

Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said the mayor is committed to maintaining a diverse police force. She noted that there are now twice as many Latino and Asian police officers as there were when Menino was elected mayor in 1993. The number of African Americans on the force has increased as well.

“We are continuing to increase the diversity within the ranks,” she said.

When asked why the mayor refused to meet with MAMLEO, Joyce said that Menino directed Davis to meet with the organization.

Historically, there was little diversity on the police force until civil rights activists sued the department in the early 1970s. In 1974, the BPD was placed under a federal consent decree mandating that for every white applicant considered for a job as police officer, the department had to consider a black or Latino applicant, and file a written statement with attorneys representing the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as to why applicants were not hired.

The consent decree was terminated in 2004, after a judge ruled that the department had achieved the goal of a police force whose black and Latino populations were proportionate to the percentage of blacks and Latinos living in Boston.

That same year, then-Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O’Toole publicly admitted that relying solely on the civil service exam was an impediment to hiring and promoting black and Latino officers. She promised to find ways to maintain diversity on the force.

But five years later, the civil service exam remains the sole determinant for promotions on the force.

“Other cities have revised their system so it depends on more than just the score,” noted City Councilor-at-Large Sam Yoon, who is running for mayor in this year’s election.

“Whether or not you’re a good cop should be determined by more than a single exam,” Yoon said. “Your ability to relate to the people you serve is more important.”

Fellow City Councilor-at-Large and mayoral candidate Michael F. Flaherty pointed out that the mayor has the power to order the commissioner to appoint people to certain leadership positions, regardless of their civil service rank.

All superintendents and deputy superintendents are appointed by the police commissioner, as are captain detectives, lieutenant detectives and sergeant detectives, Flaherty said. Right now, there are no black captain detectives and just one black lieutenant detective.

“There are so many people of color who I’ve worked with, who I know their work ethic and their character,” said Flaherty, who worked as an assistant district attorney in Roxbury District Court. “I intend to tap into that talent for the betterment of the city.”

Flaherty and Yoon both called for a top-to-bottom restructuring of the department and an end to what they said was rampant cronyism.

“We need a cultural sea change at the Boston Police Department,” Flaherty said. “The culture that exists now in the department is such that it’s not about how well you do on the job. It’s about who you know.”

According to MAMLEO’s Ellison, the culture in the department has not been friendly to people of color. Under the Menino administration, the number of blacks and Latinos appointed to the rank of deputy superintendent has remained at four out of 14, but that position has been stripped of any decision-making authority.

The black officers who have risen to the highest ranks in the department have either retired, left the department or been demoted. James Claiborne, the superintendent on duty during the 2005 fatal police shooting of Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove, took the fall for the incident and was demoted to his civil service rank as captain.

Both Claiborne and former Superintendent Joseph Carter — who left the force in 1998 to lead the Oak Bluffs Police Department, became head of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police and now serves as Adjutant General of the state National Guard — have been mentioned as potential commissioners.

But as Flaherty pointed out, leadership by people of color has been lacking in the Menino administration. Right now, Menino has just one African American department head — Larry Mayes, the city’s chief of human services — and one black superintendent — Boston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson.

Mayes and former Department of Neighborhood Development Director Chuck Grigsby are the only two African American men to ever head departments in the Menino administration.

Yoon said that in the police department, diverse leadership is key to effective community policing.

“The leadership is the way the department relates to the community,” Yoon said. “That relationship is so much better when you have folks from the community in positions of power.”