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Appeals court backs cops in hair test case

Court finds tests unreliable

Banner Staff

A group of black Boston cops fired for drug use after what they said was a flawed hair test won an important legal victory last Friday when the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld an earlier ruling reinstating them with back pay and benefits.

The ruling is the latest chapter in a decade-long legal battle that pitted the six black officers against the police department and its use of the controversial test. After an exhaustive inquiry on the scientific reliability of the “hair test,” the court found that a positive result was not conclusive indication of voluntary drug ingestion and may actually be due to contamination through environmental exposure.

The court found that the risk of a false positive test was great enough to require additional evidence before terminating an officer. With respect to the six reinstated officers, the Appeals Court agreed that additional evidence clearly outweighed the flawed hair test result.

Discrimination complaint

Five reinstated officers — Ronnie Jones, Richard Beckers, Walter Washington, George Downing and Shawn Harris — are African-Americans who are also challenging the hair test on racial discrimination grounds in a separate federal lawsuit filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice on behalf of the individual officers and the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO).

“The City of Boston has been fighting for years to defend a scientifically unreliable and discriminatory drug-screening vehicle that resulted in the wrongful termination of a disproportionate number of African-American police officers,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice in a press statement.

A Boston Police Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Disparate impact

In the discrimination case, a federal court found that the hair test has a statistically disparate racial impact. In 2006, for example, 71 percent of positive results were generated by tests of African American officers. The discrimination case remains pending in the Federal Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

“Diversity in police ranks is a key component of community representation and accountability,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “Our communities are safer and stronger when minority officers have an equal opportunity to serve and when police departments reflect the neighborhoods they serve. Nevertheless, the City of Boston continues to defend its scientifically unreliable and discriminatory drug test.”

The city has spent more than $352,000 to defend the flawed hair test, according to the Lawyers’ Committee. In the meantime, 75 percent of new police hires have been white, and Boston’s increasingly diverse populations remain significantly underrepresented in the police force. The BPPA’s victory in the Appeals Court could go a long way in helping to diversify the force.

MAMLEO President Larry Ellison questioned why the city is continuing to administer the hair test and defend it in court despite the fact that it has lost appeals.

“I asked the mayor, the commissioner and [Superintendent William] Gross to settle this,” Ellison said. “I said, ‘these are issues that started under the previous administration. If you continued to fight this, they’re yours.’”

The Boston Police Department may appeal the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Espinoza-Madrigal said it’s unlikely the SJC would hear the case.

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