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Yvonne Abraham

Commanding failure in the BPD

The Boston Police Department has a serious, embarrassing lack of diversity in its upper ranks. But the mess that is its cockamamie promotions system goes way beyond race.

The department’s long, lousy record on advancing minorities burst into view again last week when MAMLEO, the minority officers’ association, criticized Commissioner Ed Davis for promoting five officers — all of them white — and passing over candidates of color who got equal scores on the civil service exam. MAMLEO had raised objections immediately after the promotions, and within hours, Davis had ordered the promotion of two more officers — both black — who had been slated for the next round of advancements.

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Credit to Davis for fixing the screw-up fast, but the damage was done. A fresh spotlight now shines on an incredible picture: All of Boston’s police captains are white men, as are 42 of the city’s 48 lieutenants, and 23 of 25 lieutenant detectives. Of the city’s 177 sergeants, 145 are white men.

This is a massive problem. It’s a no-brainer that a truly effective police force must reflect the population it serves and protects. That that simple goal remains so far out of reach in 2013 reflects not just racial inequality running over generations, but the system itself.

To be promoted, officers must take a multiple-choice civil service exam to test their knowledge of laws and management theory. Their score makes up 80 percent of their application; education and experience make up the rest. Those with the highest scores are promoted first.

There are two problems with relying so heavily on the test. First, for reasons too complex and depressing to get into here, minority applicants in general don’t do as well as white test-takers do. Second, a multiple-choice test does a lousy job of predicting who can lead. If Officer A, who is good at rote learning but is barely verbal and a lousy manager, scores an 85, he advances before Officer B, who is a great communicator and manager, and scores an 80.

But Officer B is the sergeant we need. “All a written exam tells you is how good someone is at memorizing facts,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based think tank. “The job of supervisor is more complicated than that.’’

Other police departments across the country get this. Beyond a written test, they evaluate applicants’ management skills, judgment, and temperament with interviews and simulations. A bunch of people around here, including a frustrated Davis, would like something similar in Boston.

“Those two guys involved in the shoot-out the other day,” he said, referring to the officers wounded in Dorchester on Wednesday afternoon, both black, 24-year veterans, and on the promotion list. “They have a tremendous work ethic, the respect of people on the street, they are just the type of individuals I’d like to hold up in this organization as role models. But I can’t factor that in.”

So why can’t we fix this? Because state law requires that unions agree to changes in the system, and the unions want no part of such reform. “Our membership is completely against it,” says Mark Parolin, of the Boston Superior Officers Federation. The civil service system was put in place over 100 years ago to insulate public hiring from the whims of Boss Tweeds. And the unions don’t believe the city has changed much.

Even MAMLEO, astonishingly, doesn’t want to change the current promotion system. “I don’t trust the police department to handle that properly,” said Larry Ellison, who leads the association. Ellison wants to keep the test, but change the questions to focus less on theory and more on situations police encounter every day. He’s confident minority officers will then rise up the promotions list.

Maybe.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit attacking the whole, mad system is pending. It may fall to a federal judge — again — to force Boston to address its obdurate legacy of racial imbalance.

Why can’t we, for once, do better than that?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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