Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis faces an uphill battle as he launches an overhaul of the department’s promotion process, with key groups and observers expressing skepticism about the effort to develop a more comprehensive test that could diversify the agency’s upper ranks.
While officers of color welcomed the step, many worry that Davis’s proposal to revise the promotion exam could be a cumbersome process subject to litigation and appeals and will not address diversity concerns in a timely manner, said Detective Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
“It was an attempt to kick the can down the road,” said Ellison, whose organization has frequently sparred with the department over diversity issues.
Captain Francis Armstrong, president of the mostly white Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, has also raised a red flag, saying his union would challenge the new test if it believed it allowed the department to consider factors other than merit.
“I’m just worried that diversity could become a pseudonym for preference,” Armstrong said.
Although several officers and observers said they expected a challenge from the department’s unions, Armstrong said his officers are waiting to see the redesigned test before taking a position on it.
Davis announced earlier this month that the department will spend $2.2 million to replace its promotions exam, saying a new test could better select qualified officers and increase diversity in the department’s upper ranks. According to data released last month, all of the department’s 20 captains were white men.
In an interview, Davis said the department would work closely with minority groups and unions during the redesign process, which he estimated would take between 12 and 18 months.
“Time will show we’re making a good-faith effort to do the right thing here,” the commissioner said.
Unlike promotions to superintendent and deputy superintendent, which are done through appointment, the department uses a statewide civil service exam as the main determinant of promotions to sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.
In two pending lawsuits, minority officers have asserted that the statewide exam questions do not measure job performance and have contributed to the lack of diversity in the department’s leadership.
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who has testified for the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits, said the exam unfairly favors people who, like him, have benefited from education at elite schools that drilled memorization skills.
“You don’t need memory; you need supervision skills,” Nolan said in an interview. “These tests don’t measure that.”
The exam consists of 80 to 120 questions, depending on which rank an officer applies for. Test questions address the content of about seven textbooks, which are announced about six months prior to the test.
Now a criminal justice professor at Tufts University, Nolan praised Davis for tackling a “thorn in the side” of past commissioners. But he said his expectations for the process are measured, given the challenges that unions filed against previous attempts to change the exam.
“Based on the decades of history and the litigation that has followed prior attempts to modify the system, I’m not optimistic that it will be successful,” he said.
Davis said the department will work carefully to design a test that neither discriminates against minority officers nor gives them an advantage.
The commissioner also said he believes the replacement exam should include new components that are not written.
Possible additions include performance reviews, interviews, and event simulations.
The overhaul comes as welcome news to communities of color, said Alejandra St. Guillen, executive director of Oiste, an organization devoted to Latino involvement in public life. She cautioned, however, against equating Davis’s announcement with a complete victory for those seeking more diversity in the department’s leadership.
“It’s too easy for the department to really focus in on this one aspect, which is the test, and not make headway in any of these other areas,” said St. Guillen, a member of the department’s Diversity Committee.
The “other areas” include steps Davis could take immediately, said Ellison.
He said such steps could include assigning more responsibility to deputy superintendents, a rank that has a higher percentage of officers of color.
Asked about the suggestion, Davis said it was not an option he was considering.
The department has reduced violent crime using its current command structure, and a change in structure could disrupt that progress, he said.
The commissioner said much of the hesitation about the replacement of the promotions test has little to do with the issue at hand and a lot to do with history.
“That skepticism is built upon years of issues around race in the Boston Police Department, just like there are issues of race everywhere around the Commonwealth,” he said. “We’re not immune to that.”
The commissioner said he is optimistic the study will yield a better test, but the department has much work ahead.
“We have to be diligent in putting the best system in place that’s fair to everyone,” he said.
Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Adam Sege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AdamSege.