Hoping to end decades of tension over the advancement of minority officers, the Boston Police Department plans to overhaul a promotion system that has been criticized for contributing to a lack of diversity in the department’s upper ranks.
Commissioner Edward F. Davis is expected to send an e-mail to officers and command staff Thursday announcing a $2.2 million initiative to replace a written promotion exam used statewide with a testing system that could include interviews and other components designed to provide a broader measure of leadership and potential.
Among the department’s approximately two dozen captains — the highest rank determined by the promotion exam — there is one Asian and no blacks, Hispanics, or women.
“All you need to do is look at the numbers to see that something needs to be done,” Davis said. “We intend to take charge of this and to put a process in place that people will be satisfied with.”
In a statement, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said the initiative, which will be paid for by the city, underscores Boston’s commitment to a police department that better reflects the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of Boston.
“In moving forward with this plan to change the current testing system, we will continue with our mission and help create a more diverse department throughout all ranks,” he said.
In a scathing letter last month, several local minority groups blasted Menino for a lack of diversity within city departments. The letter singled out Police Department demographics as particularly disappointing.
Larry Ellison, who signed the letter and is president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said Wednesday that he remained skeptical of the city’s commitment to diversifying the department.
“Unless I have some idea of what the exam is going to consist of,” he said, “I can’t get too excited about it.”
Minority officers remain disillusioned by the lack of people of color in decision-making roles within the department, said Ellison, a Boston police detective who has been on the force for 30 years.
“There’s no one at the table that looks like us, for the most part, in the decision-making process,” he said. “I never thought I’d be fighting the fight I’m fighting in the twilight of my career.”
Davis said the department will work closely with its Minority Advisory Council, which includes Ellison, as it studies the current test and designs a new one.
The current examination consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. Results from the examination determine promotions to the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.
The overhaul will not affect how the department hires rank-and-file officers.
During the process, which the commissioner said could take a year and a half, the department will also seek the guidance of Jack McDevitt , an associate dean at Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Many other states use examinations that include components that are not written, and McDevitt said an officer’s workhistory can better predict performance than a written test.
And in a city where people of color are now the majority, the promotion of more minority officers would improve relations with the community, he said. “The research shows that police agencies that reflect the diversity of their community are more likely to have higher levels of trust and confidence in the police,” McDevitt said.
That can translate into more tips from community members, he said, and enhance the willingness of witnesses to testify in court.
Thursday’s announcement is the latest chapter in what has been a lengthy debate about the diversity of the Police Department.
A federal court declared in 1974 that Boston’s police and fire departments were so lacking in diversity that it imposed quotas on rank-and-file hiring, mandating that one minority candidate be hired for every white newcomer. That federal order was lifted after 30 years.
In February, nine black police officers sued the city, arguing that the written exam prevented them from receiving promotions they deserved.
Department critics and city officials agree that diversifying the department will help community policing efforts, which the department relies on in its work to fight crime and violence.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, called the overhaul of the promotion system a critical step.
Lagging diversity in the Police Department is not unique to Boston, said Brown, whose organization was one of the key groups in the Boston Miracle, the nationally recognized campaign that contributed to a steep decline in crime in the early 1990s.
“Historically as cities get darker, you have police departments and especially police leadership that are a lot slower in reflecting diversity than the populations of the cities themselves,” he said. “You need to have policies like this in order to help accelerate the diversity within any police department.”