If researchers from MIT can craft a solution to Boston’s decades-old student assignment problem, then it’s time to turn the academics loose on Boston’s second-thorniest problem: How to ensure adequate minority representation on the city’s police force.
Perhaps the professors could convince the city to jettison the Civil Service police exam altogether. The entry level test works OK for measuring basic reading comprehension and reasoning skills. But it doesn’t effectively measure judgment and communication skills.
Military veterans will fight back. They currently jump to the top of the Civil Service eligibility list. But what is the benefit to public safety when a veteran who scores a minimum passing grade of 70 is placed ahead of a community college graduate or City Year volunteer who scores 90 or 100? This symbol of respect for military service has become a symbol of futility for others.
Minorities fare especially poorly in this system. The current Boston police academy class of 57 recruits has only eight minority members — and no black women. A few more classes like this and the department will start to take on the feel of the 1960s, when residents of minority neighborhoods viewed police officers more like occupying troops than problem solvers.
It is an axiom of modern policing that urban departments should reflect the communities they serve. Deputy Superintendent Lisa Holmes, whose department oversees recruiting for the Boston Police, said that minority officers in urban areas often “take the anxiety out of the process of dealing with the police.” That view is echoed nationally by police managers who credit the healthy presence of minority officers for progress in areas ranging from intelligence gathering to community relations.
In Boston, these benefits are slipping away. In 2004, a federal judge lifted a 30-year-old consent decree requiring the city to hire one minority officer for each white officer. The judge noted then that both the percentage of minority officers and the percentage of ethnic and racial minorities in the city stood at about 40 percent. These groups now make up more than half the population of Boston. But the percentage of minority officers has fallen back to a third of the force. If the police can’t fix this, then a federal judge should.
Boston Police, MBTA Police, and the state Human Resources Division have done an outstanding job in recent years at spreading the word about the police exam in minority neighborhoods. It’s too early to know how many minority candidates will sit for the April exam because of the traditional rush in the week leading up to the March 18 application deadline. But it’s clear there’s interest. In 2011, more than a quarter of the 9,692 applicants statewide were members of minority groups. In Boston, 50 percent of those sitting for the police exam were minority applicants.
Outreach isn’t the problem. Blacks and Hispanics are lining up to take the test. But too few are getting anywhere.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis has been convinced for years that white veterans are squeezing out minority civilian candidates. He didn’t make many friends at local VFW halls when he described his concerns back in 2009: “We’re not trying to take a hill,’’ said Davis. “We’re trying to communicate with people.’’ Davis is sticking to his guns. And he is focused on the right target: how best to ensure a safe and livable city.
The veterans’ preference will require a lot of analysis. Veterans make up 25 percent of the police officers hired in Boston over the past five years. Statewide figures are higher. Nearly 40 percent of officers hired from the 2009 Civil Service eligibility list are veterans. Will the percentages keep rising in Boston? And if so, will the increase come largely at the expense of minority applicants? Boston needs answers.
Some minority applicants may be hurting their own chances. The full picture requires researchers to collect and analyze data on how many minority candidates who pass the test actually undergo all of the initial screenings, get weeded out on background checks, or even miss their notices to report because their families moved without leaving a forwarding address. No one can pin those problems on veterans’ preference.
The bottom line, though, is that prospects are dimming for minority officers. And that means gloomier days and nights ahead on the streets of Boston.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.