Diversity in Fire and Police Needed in Boston

ViewPoint: Diversity in fire and police needed in Boston (published in the Boston Business Journal)

At a time when the private sector is increasingly recognizing the benefits of a diverse workforce, many public sector agencies unfortunately seem to be forgetting this lesson. Boston, for example, is fast becoming a majority-minority city, yet its police and fire departments are falling woefully behind this demographic shift. It’s time to make the business case for diversity in these public safety agencies.

The numbers point to a crisis in the making. According to city data, nearly three-quarters of all firefighters are white, and about two-thirds of all police officers are white. More than 80 percent of superior officers are white. These statistics are incongruent with the demographic composition of a city continuing to experience growth in its minority and immigrant population, with black, Latino, and Asian residents accounting for roughly 25 percent, 22 percent and 9 percent of the population, respectively.

Simply put, Boston is becoming more diverse, but its police and fire departments are not keeping pace.

Why is this a problem? To put it in business terms, these agencies are becoming increasingly out of step with their “customer base.” Just as businesses strive to be attuned to their customers, so too public safety agencies must know and reflect those they serve. Particularly in community-oriented services such as police and fire departments, a lack of diversity can exacerbate tensions that already exist between public safety agencies and communities of color. That lack of trust deters victims and witnesses of crimes from reporting incidents, and therefore hurts public safety. A diverse workforce helps close that trust gap.

To make matters worse, in many cases, Boston police and fire personnel literally cannot communicate with those they serve. In business, recent studies have shown ads for bilingual employees more than doubling over the past several years, as more companies realize communicating with non-English speakers is essential today. Language skills are arguably even more critical in public safety. Finally, diversity in the workplace is a key driver of innovation and creativity. The same is true in the public sector.

So how should the city move forward?

For the fire department, the city should support creation of a “fire cadet” program, a proven way to bring in new recruits of color.

For both its police and fire departments, the city should more aggressively pursue and hire bilingual employees. The city could work hand in hand with such organizations as the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officials and the Boston Society of Vulcans, which promote diversity in police and fire employment.

As any good business leader knows, being successful today requires embracing change and diversity. We hope the city of Boston will learn this lesson as well.

Sophia L. Hall is a staff attorney and Oren M. Sellstrom is litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.