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Lawyers call foul play as police bypass black candidate with old infractions

Would-be-officer rejected due to continuance without a finding at age 18, spotty driving history

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Lawyers filed a complaint on behalf of a black Boston resident who was passed over for hiring into the Boston Police Department. Keon Finklea scored sufficiently high on the Civil Service test and came with what the Civil Service Commission describes as “very positive recommendations” from former employers, along with strong personal references. However, in its decision not to bring him on to the force, the Boston Police Department cited Finklea’s record that contained driving misdemeanors from five years prior and a continuance without a finding charge when the applicant was 18 years old. Five applicants ranked below Finklea were hired.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, along with Birnbaum & Godkin LLP board member David S. Godkin, filed a complaint on behalf of Finklea, seeking a reversal of the decision. According to Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for the Lawyers’ Committee, the employment decision’s subjective nature is worrying.

“We are troubled by what appears to be a discriminatory way of applying their discretion in these situations,” he told the Banner.”[Finklea has] been bypassed for really trivial reasons. … Going back half a person’s lifetime ago and trying to couple together minor incidents of driving infractions really is problematic, particularly when it ends up disqualifying highly-qualified applicants of color at time when the Boston Police Department professes to want to diversify the police force.”

The Lawyers’ Committee issued a press release that states that the move is one of many that undermine the department’s professed interest in diversity.

“The subjective nature of BPD’s employment processes, the lack of transparency and the lack of commitment to diversity are unfortunately nothing new,” states the Lawyers’ Committee press release. “Despite its claims to value diversity on the police force, the Boston Police Department continues to stand in the way of diversity by improperly ‘bypassing’ candidates of color who apply to be police officers.”

BPD representatives, however, state that rigorous standards alone drove the decision not to hire Finklea.

“The Boston Police Department always seeks to increase diversity in hiring,” accordig to a statement BPD spokesperson Mike McCarthy provided to the Banner. “There are certain hiring standards that must be met. We are held to the highest of standards by those that we serve. We would be doing a disservice to the community if we didn’t hold applicants to those same standards when considering them for the position of police officer.”

Finklea completed the civil service exam in 2013 and submitted his application in 2014.

In 2015, he appealed his bypass to the Civil Service Commission, which upheld the BPD’s decision, although one commissioner went on record as dissenting. The Lawyers’ Committee has submitted a request to the Suffolk Superior Court that it review the decision. Sellstrom said they expect the court to issue its opinion late this year.

Finklea

Finklea was a 32-year-old father of an infant and living in Hyde Park at the time of his Civil Service hearing in June 2015. He was working as a manager at T-Mobile and expected to complete a degree in project management at Wentworth Institute of Technology later that year.

Finklea’s application to the BPD included robust recommendations, including from the Boston Public Works Department. At the time of his application to the BPD, he was a full-time personal banker and working part-time at Best Buy. His personal recommendations spoke to his integrity, ability to de-escalate situations and mentoring work, according to the Civil Service Commission decision document. One reference recalled a time when Finklea found a wallet full of cash on the street and located the owner in order to return it.

CWOF from 2001

The hitch in Finklea’s application came in the form of several items on his record.

“The [Police] Department argues that police officers must be held to the highest standard of behavior and enforce the law and that the Appellant’s [Finklea’s] driving and criminal record indicate that the Appellant does not meet this high standard and that he has not abided by the law,” states the Civil Service Decision.

The BPD cited a 2001 incident in which Finklea was charged with receiving a stolen tire of value above $250, which constitutes a felony. Finklea, who was approximately 18 at the time, received a continuance without a finding (CWOF). According to BPD representatives in the hearing, regardless of the court’s decision not to convict Finklea of a felony, the CWOF involved “felonious conduct.”

The Civil Service Commission did not agree with this line of the BPD’s reasoning. Finklea had argued that he had a challenging childhood and that his record does not reflect who he is currently. Dissenting commissioner Paul Stein stated that Finklea’s record also did not include enough information to certify that the value of the received property indeed was high enough to count as a felony. Stein further stated this was not the type of offenses that would indicate underlying and recent conduct issues, such as might be indicated by a record of domestic violence.

Driving record

The Civil Service Commission did uphold the BPD’s bypass on the basis of Finklea’s driving record. The record included a number of citations including failure to display number plate, failure to keep in the proper lane, seat belt violation and speeding.

“The Respondent [the BPD] had reasonable justification to be concerned that the Appellant’s driving history indicated that he would not responsibly drive and care for department vehicles as required by law,” states the Civil Service Commission’s decision.

Finklea stated in his defense that many of these infractions were long in the past. Between 2010 and the time of the hearing in 2015, Finklea had only one item on his driving record, a speeding infraction in 2013. Furthermore, he said that financial inability was the root of many of these infractions. For many years, he drove an old Honda Civic and could not afford to make the repairs needed to pass inspection, Finklea said. By 2011, he received promotions at Best Buy that allowed him to purchase a 2008 Acura TSX in better condition and with fewer required repairs. He was stopped less frequently after that point.

Commissioner Stein went on the record opposing this decision. Stein said that the items detrimental to Finklea’s candidacy were too old to accurately reflect his current state and that the positive elements of Finklea’s candidacy were significant.

“Rote disqualification of otherwise well-qualified young men and women, such as Mr. Finklea, for appointment to what is often their ‘dream job’ as a sworn police officer, based entirely on hearsay evidence of a BPD’s ‘roundtable’ review of paper records of a 14-year old CWOF and a driving record that is equally as stale, cannot be squared with the core principles of civil service law,” Stein said. “He had only one speeding ticket within the five years prior to the bypass. …Basic merit principles require that Mr. Finklea receive another consideration for appointment.”