A federal judge ruled this week that the City of Boston discriminated against Black and Latino police officers by using a flawed promotional exam to select police lieutenants. The case, Smith v. City of Boston, is one of several that are pending in federal courts challenging discriminatory procedures for hiring and promoting police officers in Massachusetts.
In the recent ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Young found that Boston’s 2008 promotional exam was unfairly biased against Black and Latino test-takers, and that the test failed to reliably measure attributes – such as interpersonal skills and sound decision-making ability – that are necessary for the lieutenant position. The plaintiffs, who are represented by Lichten & Liss-Riordan, P.C. (Harold Lichten, Benjamin Weber) and Fair Work, P.C. (Steve Churchill), will now meet with the City to try to reach agreement on appropriate remedies for the discriminatory test, which may include promotions and monetary damages.
“We applaud this ruling,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, an organization that represents minority police officers in similar challenges pending in the federal courts. “Diversity in police ranks is a key component of community representation and accountability. Our communities are safer and stronger when minority officers have an equal opportunity to advance and when police departments reflect the neighborhoods they serve.”
Federal courts are currently reviewing other discriminatory police practices. In Jones v. City of Boston, the Lawyers’ Committee is challenging a discriminatory and unreliable hair test used by the City of Boston to determine drug use. Last year, the First Circuit ruled that the hair test disproportionately affects Black officers. This ruling makes sense because the test is unreliable for Black officers due to their unique hair characteristics. Nonetheless, a federal judge upheld the test, a ruling that the Lawyers’ Committee is now appealing to the First Circuit. In a companion case, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission found that the hair test is unreliable and required the Boston Police Department to reinstate six officers, but the City of Boston is appealing this decision.
A separate case, Lopez v. Lawrence, is currently challenging an examination used by Boston, Lawrence, Methuen, Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to determine promotions to the position of sergeant. In the Lopez case, Black and Latino police officers allege that the test is discriminatory, citing a number of critical flaws in the promotional exam, including whether it is appropriate to use a written multiple-choice exam to measure skills such as leadership, supervisory abilities, and command presence. After a district court judge found the exam to be valid, the plaintiffs appealed. The First Circuit heard oral argument on the appeal last month. The federal government filed a brief against the City of Boston and urged the First Circuit to vacate the lower court’s decision.
“Issues of police diversity are profoundly important,” noted Espinoza-Madrigal of the Lawyers’ Committee. The federal government, in its recent investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, found widespread concern about the lack of diversity in Ferguson, Missouri’s police department and specifically called on the city to use only “reliable and valid selection devices” to hire and promote police officers. Espinoza-Madrigal added: “Our increasingly diverse communities remain significantly underrepresented. We are optimistic that other federal courts will follow Judge Young’s lead and continue to strike down arbitrary and unfair employment practices that stand in the way of police diversity and that weaken the integrity of our police departments.”