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Diversity a challenge for Walsh

Police and fire remain problematic for blacks, Latinos

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Diversity a challenge for Walsh
Veteran status, far more than test scores, determines who gets hired by the Fire Department, according to city officials.

On Monday, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ordered Mayor Martin Walsh to comply with a more than two-year-old request from The Boston Globe that the mayor release public record information on the race and ethnicity of all individual city employees. The city already collects this information, as required by federal law, and it was common practice to release it under the previous mayoral administration.

Last week, in advance of the judge’s ruling, Walsh administration officials unveiled a “diversity dashboard,” an online tool they said would detail the gender and racial makeup of city employees. The website discloses employee demographics by percentage for departments or the city as a whole and salary averages, but no information on level or kind of positions held.

The judge’s ruling and the dashboard illustrate City Hall’s checkered history of honoring the mayor’s campaign promise to run a more transparent administration.

While Walsh administration officials tout their commitment to diversity, in two of the city’s largest departments the percentages of blacks and Latinos have been declining.

According to information provided by the department, the BPD has a force of 2,103 sworn officers of which 475 are black (22.6 percent) and 184 Latino (8.7 percent). Meanwhile, the city’s population is 24 percent black and 17.5 percent Latino, according to the 2010 census. The fire department has 1,489 officers, with blacks numbering 310 (20.8 percent) and Latinos 111 (7.45 percent), according to Steve MacDonald, spokesperson for the Boston Fire Department.

“There’s no diversity in the Boston Police Department,” said Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “A lot of the gains that have been made have been eroded. There seems to be a concerted effort to do nothing about it from people in power.”

Fire Department preferences

The fire department’s current class of recruits comprises 25 people, two of whom are black and none of whom are Latino or Asian, according to MacDonald. And among those already serving, blacks and Latinos are primarily represented in the firefighter rank, as opposed to higher in command.

MacDonald and Danielson Tavares, Boston’s’ chief diversity officer, said a law giving hiring preference to veterans is primarily responsible for this lack of diversity. With thousands applying on a given civil service exam, typically only veterans or those with other preferences make it into the pool to considered, Tavares said.

“We tell people, the path to getting hired to be a firefighter is to serve in the military and then use your veteran status to go in front of those who are not veterans,” MacDonald told the Banner. The current recruit class is comprised entirely veterans, as have been the last two classes, he said.

Residency route?

In 2014, City Councilor Michael Flaherty sponsored an ordinance that would have boosted the chances of Boston resident applicants. Currently, candidates for police and fire are given preference if they have lived in the city for one year; under the ordinance, that residency requirement would expand to three years. At the time, Mayor Martin Walsh vetoed the ordinance, expressing intention instead pass it as a more formal Home Rule Petition, according to Flaherty’s website. Since then, Walsh has not re-filed the ordinance.

Tavares said that residency requirements remain contentious and it is uncertain if the city will pursue the expansion.

“We haven’t made that determination,” he said. “Residency requirements are one of those points that is heavily contested and debated. It’s a conversation that we’re really having to figure out how do we have more not just diversity but native Boston folks on both departments.”

Considering steps

This month, the city took the step of hiring Juan Sanchez as the fire department’s diversity officer. One of Sanchez’s tasks will be to make plans to recruit more minority veterans to take the entrance test, MacDonald said. Tavares said that during a conversation with Sanchez and the fire commissioner, further plans emerged. These include community outreach to publicize dates of upcoming civil service exams and alternatives to the exam fee for those unable to pay. Plans also include outreach to school children “targeting them at a young age … letting them know steps they’re going to take to get a real shot at [a career in Fire,]” Tavares said.

“A lot of neighborhood kids don’t realize the role that the veteran preference plays. They believe scoring high enough on the exam will get you in. Unfortunately that’s not true,” Tavares said.

Sanchez is a Dorchester resident who has worked with diversity recruitment, hiring, spending and workforce development via a previous position as the Access and Opportunity Coordinator for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Tavares was unaware of any diversity benchmark goals Sanchez is expected to meet during his first few months.

Police problems

There are strong concerns that the police force will become less diverse, with many officers of color due to retire. Currently, there are 53 recruits, six of whom are black and eight Latino.

BPD hiring relies on the civil service exam. Tavares said that while city officials could petition the state to change that requirement, the city would first need to devise an alternate method it could propose.

“First we need to figure out, legislatively and as a body, which portions of civil service we need to address,” he said.

Promotions also are governed by civil exams, and MAMLEO’s Ellison said that tests are the first thing that need to be fixed. In November, a federal judge ruled that the test used in 2008 to determine promotions to lieutenant was biased against blacks and Latinos and failed to predict success in the position. The test is the same as that used to determine promotion to sergeant in 2008.

Tavares said that there is some internal discussion of the promotions process.

“There’s been conversation about, Is there opportunity to change the way promotions are done? Is there an opportunity to work within the civil service rules, or are there changes to be made there? Those are conversation we’re having internally, with the fire chief, with the police chief,” he said.

When asked about diversity prospects for hiring bilingual or multilingual officers, Tavares said the city is having discussions on matters such as this.

“Those conversations are being had. We haven’t made a final determination of how to proceed with it,” he said. “It’d be nice to have a police force that not only resembles the city of Boston but also can interact with all different groups, and part of that’s being able to communicate with them.”

Cadet program

Currently, the BPD seems to be focusing on the reinstated cadet program to bolster diversity numbers.

McCarthy previously told the Banner that approximately 375 people applied to take the cadet exam. Out of all who pass — and Tavares expected nearly all would — 42 will be admitted into the cadet program. When creating its police recruit class, the BPD may give one-third of those slots to cadets.

Tavares said that while no specific diversity goals are set, neighborhood of residency and racial diversity will be considered when admitting applicants to the cadet program. With more than 70 percent of exam takers are people of color, the final selections are likely to be diverse, he said.

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