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Rights activists push to diversify Boston fire, police

Six-figure-salary public jobs remain primarily with whites

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Rights activists push to diversify Boston fire, police
Police diversity officer Michael Gaskins spoke to attendees at a community forum on police and fire diversity, held in MAMLEO offices. Tanisha Sullivan (left), NAACP president, moderated the discussion.

As people of color have increased their numbers in Boston, the fire and police department workforces have remained primarily white. City officials long have said civil service law is responsible for keeping two of the largest city institutions — and their six-figure paychecks — largely out of the hands of minority residents. Community members, elected officials, current and former officers and others gathered at Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers’ offices last week to discuss solution strategies.

Today, the Boston Police Department is 67 percent white, said one attorney. But less than half of the city population is white. The problem is similar in the fire department, where 72 percent of the force is white.

Larry Ellison (left), president of MAMLEO and Darrell Higginbottom (right), president of the Boston Vulcans, look on as a firefighter speaks on the challenges created by veteran preferencing.

By the numbers

As of June 2017, 20 percent of its fire suppression force — including chiefs, captains, lieutenants and firefighters — is black, 7 percent is Hispanic and less than one percent is Asian, according to a city spokesperson. The spokesperson declined to provide racial and ethnic data on the police force or on those officers eligible or approaching eligibility for retirement.

By many accounts, over the next five years more officers of color will retire than will enter the ranks of police and fire. The incoming police class is almost 80 percent white, according to WBUR News.

City Councilor Tito Jackson said in a Banner phone interview that many officers hired under a 1972 consent decree to diversify the force are coming up on retirement eligibility, and that hiring rates have not kept pace.

“The vast majority of the ranking officers of color will be eligible to retire in the next five years,” Jackson said. “The Boston police dept under Mayor Walsh has hired 90 percent white police officers and 75 percent white firefighters in a city that is majority people of color.”

Salaries and services

The result is people of color are locked out of high-paying positions, a contributor to Boston’s stark racial gaps in wealth and income. The average starting firefighter earns more than $100,000 annually between salary and add-ons, said Darrell Higginbottom, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, during the meeting. A deputy chief’s average income is $228,667, he said.

“This is a 32-year career, and you add up that income over 32 years and that’s a windfall that someone else is getting and we’re not,” Higginbottom said.

Many say as well that departments representative of the populace would serve them better. Larry Ellison, MAMLEO president, said communities of color overwhelming complain about the BPD gang unit and the number of unsolved homicides. Meanwhile, there are no people of color on the gang or homicide units.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said a more diverse fire and police would be a preventative measure against instances such as the killing of an unarmed civilian of color, and would improve residents’ quality of life.

“It’s a no brainer that if more people who look like us work in these institutions, we would have better access to services,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “We are not entitled to the crumbs. These are public institution that should be representative and inclusive of everyone in our communities.”

Veteran preferences

Explanations for the racial disparity are manifold. Only those who pass the civil service exam qualify for hiring consideration. A veteran preference means that any veteran who passes the test must be hired or bypassed before even civilians with perfect scores can be considered. The impact on diversity is evident: While whites accounted for 50 percent of exam takers in 2012, 2014 and 2016, they were 90 percent of hires, according to Higginbottom.

While Higginbottom says there is precedent in 2007 and 2009 for acquiring exemptions from the civil service laws in hiring decisions, city diversity officials like say the law ties their hands because whites dominate the veteran pool.

“There’s a lack of minority veterans,” Juan Sanchez, fire diversity officer, told the Banner at the event.

Given the disagreement over feasibility of altering civil service laws as well as sensitivity around altering a measure that favors veterans, many at the MAMLEO meeting proposed focusing on other remedies. Among them is adding preference categories that would prioritize candidates who speak multiple languages and have lived in Boston for a significant period of time. The new preference categories would not replace the one for veterans but complement it, meaning that multilingual Bostonian veterans would be more likely to be hired.

Juan Sanchez said the preference could target Spanish, Haitian Creole and Vietnamese. Additionally, while current law prioritizes those who have lived in Boston for the year prior to taking the civil service exam, a bill filed by Rep. Dan Hunt would expand this to three years, and a bill filed by Rep. Russell Holmes would expand this to five years. In 2014, City Councilor Michael Flaherty proposed the expansion to three years, but Mayor Martin Walsh vetoed it stating an intention to refile it. Danielson Tavares, chief diversity officer, told the Banner that a three-year residency is now among Walsh’s 2017-2018 legislative priorities.

Holmes said the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus recently had a meeting with Governor Baker during which they impressed upon him that the measure would not fail to support veterans but rather prioritize ones from Boston over those from out of state.

“The legislation I’m proposing comes from the fundamental belief that the civil service exam is broken,” Holmes said.

Furthermore, Tavares and Sanchez said efforts to hire veterans of color can be expanded through greater and more proactive engagement with veterans groups of colors, as well as engaging the Vulcans and performing greater community outreach around items such as exam dates and application processes. Some meeting attendees also voiced interest in creating a pipeline connecting Boston high school students to fire and police jobs.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell said in a phone conversation with the Banner that other measures can include assisting veterans throughout the application process and making sure they are not being encouraged to withdraw their candidacies. However, she also cautioned against pinning too much hope on veterans as the solution. There are not enough veterans of color, let alone veterans of color interested in pursuing police and fire careers, to achieve parity. Statewide, only 10 to 15 percent of veterans are of color, she said.

“We can’t just look at recruiting veterans of color,” Campbell said. “We have work to do outside just recruiting in that space.”

Other factors

Some also charge that candidates of color are wrongfully counseled out of continuing with their applications or are bypassed for trivial reasons. Espinoza-Madrigal recounted the case of a young black man bypassed for speeding tickets — “Things that anybody can have, and, frankly, being a young African American man growing up and living in Boston, you’re really bound to have,” he said. Audience member Charles Clemons Muhammad said his son scored a 97 on the exam and is a veteran, but was bypassed due to a speeding ticket. His son went on to become an officer on the west coast, Clemons said. A MAMLEO attorney said he receives dozens of calls from candidates reporting they were advised to withdraw their applications because of what they are told is too many speeding tickets during the past decade or a poor work history.

Cadet program and more

Hopes also hang on establishing a cadet program for the fire department, as it has done for police. This can be a way to skirt veteran referencing —one-third of the recruit class can comprise cadets. As such, Vulcan vice president Octavius Rowe said one path to fire for non-veterans is to join the police cadet program, then make a lateral move into fire.

No date has been set for establishing a fire cadet program and city officials did not answer questions on what details of the program remain to be established before it can move forward.

And the Boston Police Cadet program is no silver bullet. Of the 40 currently enrolled, 28 are people of color. But it takes three years for a class of cadets to become officers, far more than the year-long training regular recruits undergo.

Jackson told the Banner the city has dragged its feet on reform and he and many others said urgent remedy is necessary, with Espinoza-Madrigal calling for a package of solutions delivered before the mayoral election.

“This is a matter of dignity,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “This is a matter of our own community inclusion and we should not be asked to wait our turn. “