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Boston police promotions ruled discriminatory

Federal court upholds its 2015 decision

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston police promotions ruled discriminatory
A federal judge upheld an earlier ruling that the BPD promotion exam has a disparate impact on officers of color.

Critics of a police promotional exam scored another point last month when a federal judge ruled that the exam is racially discriminatory. This was the second time U.S. District Court Judge William Young had made that determination.

In 2015, the court ruled that the test, used by the Boston Police Department from 2009 to 2015 to determine promotions to lieutenant, disparately impacts candidates of color and bears little job relevance. At the behest of an appeals court, Judge Young re-examined that ruling. He came to the same conclusion.

“The near exclusion of any critical skills and abilities meant that a high score … simply was not a good indicator that a candidate would be a good lieutenant,” Young wrote in his most recent decision.

For six years, the contested exam guided promotions of sergeants to lieutenant. Only 15 percent of lieutenant promotions during that period included black officers. Meanwhile, the city was 25 percent black, according to American Community Survey 2011-2015 estimates.

“Boston is not a post-racial city, and the police department is not a post-racial department,” said Larry Ellison, president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

After the city was sued, the BPD changed its exams, with the new test first administered in 2014. But results do not show significant improvement around race, and recent hirings raise questions from civil rights watchdogs. This year, five officers were promoted to sergeant, all of them white.

“The outcomes of the [sergeant] test raises serious concerns,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

The police force continues to be mainly white in a city primarily of color, with retirements expected to exacerbate the imbalance.

Lieutenant promotion

The U.S. District Court ruled that the 2008 lieutenant exam does not appear to predict job readiness. The written portion of the exam reflects critical reading interpretation and written expression skills more than judgment, quick decision making, oral communication, aptitude at counseling subordinates and interpersonal skills.

Espinoza-Madrigal said the city has appealed rulings requiring it to address the discriminatory impacts of the exam, and that it remains to be seen if the city will once again fight the ruling.

“We were deeply disappointed to see that instead of trying to address the discrimination that is affecting diversity in the police department, the city was trying to abort any remedy discussion and proceed only with an appeal,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “We see the [Walsh] administration defending discriminatory practices that have been challenged since the Menino era.”

Implications of the contested 2008 lieutenant exam extend to sergeant promotions as well — both exams are largely the same, BPD spokesperson Mike McCarthy told the Banner in 2015. MAMLEO’s Ellison said the test tends to favor people with a firm grasp of theory and memorization over people with practical experience and understanding of the nuance and complexities of on-the-ground situations. The written test requires knowledge of technical, infrequently-used information that is not tailored to the work of officers in Boston, he said. For instance, there have been questions about fireworks, which are only dealt with once a year on July 4th, and on policies on smoking inside a police vehicle, whereas the bulk of local police work involves issues such as motor vehicle accidents and shootings.

“There may be a question like, ‘What’s the significance of the seventh letter of a VIN number on a car?’” Ellison said. “As an investigator of 30 years, I can’t tell you what that is, because I don’t deal with that regularly and most people don’t, and it’s not a thing you need to know immediately. Knowing that doesn’t determine if you’re a good supervisor.”

Ellison said BPD’s sergeant promotion process also raises questions, in part, because those who score well on the exams are not immediately promoted, but rather sent to four to six weeks of training. That suggests that the training, more than one’s exam score, determines success in the role.

“Those people don’t just become promoted and go out on the street to start commencing their duties. They go to the academy to learn how to do the job,” Ellison said. “You could probably yield the same results or better if you just sent people to the academy for six weeks.”

2017 sergeant promotions

The most recent sergeant hiring cycle raised eyebrows. Ellison said the exam was administered over three days, allowing those who took the test on a later day to garner information on it from their friends. He also noted that it is more typical to promote ten people than five.

The BPD told Fox 25 News that three white people were next on the list for promotions and no person of color made the promotion list until the next grade. Typically the BPD administers a new sergeant exam every two years, creating a fresh list of candidates qualified for the promotions. However, Ellison said that in this case, they have been informed that current exam results will be the basis of sergeant promotions for at least 3.5 years. He alleges that the police have been known to promote off the list until they reach a high concentration of minorities, then call for a new test.