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BPD promotion test ruled biased against minorities

Judge rules 2008 lieutenant exam discriminatory against blacks, Latinos

Jule Pattison-Gordon

A federal judge ruled last week the exam used by the Boston Police Department in 2008 to determine promotions of sergeants to lieutenant was biased against blacks and Latinos and unable to accurately predict success in the new position.

The case, Smith v. the City of Boston, was brought by ten sergeants in 2012. The ruling comes at a time when the BPD already expects a loss of diversity due to black officers’ retirements. Meanwhile, a similar case challenges the exam for determining promotions to sergeant used by Boston, Lawrence and other cities.

The 2008 test

For the last six years, the 2008 test scores have determined who gets promoted to lieutenant.

In order to qualify for promotion, officers must get at least a 70 on a 100-question multiple choice test. Then the officers are given a rating for their education and experience, which, taken with performance on the written test, creates the final score.

When a lieutenant position opens up, the BPD offers it to those who passed the test in order of their scores.

The court found that the written exam — which is weighted as 80 percent of the final score — failed to asses a variety of skills and abilities important for success as lieutenants.

The test focused on knowledge and reading and interpreting written materials. What it left out were reasoning, judgment, interpersonal skills, ability to make quick decisions, oral communication and ability to counsel subordinates.

High scores did not necessarily reflect top lieutenant performance.

Troubling signs

Based on results of the 2008 exam, blacks and Latinos in the BPD were promoted at less than half the rate of whites, noted U.S. District Judge William Young in his ruling. Ninety-four percent of the whites who took the exam passed, compared to 69 percent of minorities.

“[The 2005 and 2008 exams] had fairly severe adverse impact on minority candidates, black and Hispanic,” concluded expert witness Dr. Joel Peter Wiesen, an industrial organizational psychologist.

Based on these results, only five black sergeants were promoted during the last six years, out of thirty-three sergeants promoted in that time period.

The discrimination evident in the results was not intentional, the judge said.

“This is not a case about conscious racial prejudice,” he wrote.

Sergeant Paul Joseph, a plaintiff in the suit, said city officials and the black officers want to see a more diverse command staff, but that the test was a flawed tool.

“We’re not in disagreement with the city on the vision. We’re in disagreement about how we get there. We believe the 80/20 test is discriminatory and we need to go in a different direction,” Joseph said.

New test, same problem

In 2014, the BPD issued a new promotions exam, with a different structure. More than $1.6 million was spent developing the new test, according to the judge’s report, but diversity scores have not improved.

“2014 was a completely different test. The results were no different in the sense of diversity numbers and who scored well enough to be promoted,” Lieutenant Detective Mike McCarthy, director of media relations for the BPD, said. “We didn’t get any different results, so we’re kind of at a loss as to what our next steps may be.”

The new exam weights the written portion at 33 percent and includes assessments of technical knowledge, essay-responses about job situations, oral responses to hypothetical issues that might be encountered and assessment of education and experience.

On both tests, McCarthy said doing well was simply a matter of studying.

“You put in the time and you’ll score well,” he said. “There were minority candidates who did well. You ask them, and they’ll say they studied.”

Given the scores on the new test, at least 20 sergeants will be promoted to lieutenant before a person of color is, said Larry Ellison, President of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, Inc.

Wider implications

The 2008 test was created by the state, incorporating information on rules and regulations specific to Boston.

“It’s not a Boston police test, it’s a state test,” said McCarthy.

Cities have the choice either to use the state’s civil service exam or create their own, an option Boston took for the 2014 test. If Boston’s 2008 exam was discriminatory and insufficiently relevant, it may have implications for other cities’ exams.

Likewise, the recent ruling may also raise questions about another BPD test. The exam Boston used for promotion to lieutenant in 2008 is similar to the exam it used for promotion to sergeant.

“It’s the same test for each rank,” said McCarthy.

“The bulk of the test that sergeant [applicants] are taking is same one they’re taking for lieutenant. You have to beg the question, if it’s invalid for them…” said Ellison, implying that the sergeant test may have similar issues to the lieutenant test.

Resolution deadlines

The city and the plaintiffs, who lost in both earnings and career advancement, have 30 days to reach an agreement on compensation. If they cannot agree within that time, the plaintiffs may propose a settlement and the city will have 30 days to respond.

Plaintiff Sergeant Paul Joseph said he is happy with the verdict.

“This is an opportunity for the city to address the issue of equal opportunity,” he said. “This is about the future of Boston and what kind of police department we want.”