Keon Finklea had wanted to be a Boston police officer since he was 12 years old. So in 2013, when he was 32, he finally took the department exam and was ranked 44th on a list of eligible candidates.
Finklea, who is black, appeared to have the qualities the department would want in an officer: he was a Boston native; mentored youth in the community; and was experienced in deescalating volatile situations. Finklea had also received mostly glowing recommendations from former employers, including the Department of Public Works.
“This is the person you’d want as a community police officer,” said Sophia L. Hall, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
But Finklea was not offered a spot in the police academy, even though five applicants who ranked lower on the list were hired. His case, his lawyer says, illustrates the roadblocks that poor people of color face in obtaining Police Department jobs, and why the department is not as diverse as the city it serves.
In explaining its decision not to hire him, the department cited Finklea’s criminal record. At the age of 18, he’d been charged with a felony for receiving a stolen tire from a friend, but the charge was later dismissed. He also had a driving record that included four speeding violations and other citations.
Finklea appealed the department’s decision to the Civil Service Commission in 2015 but lost. The commission found his driving record “troublesome” enough to allow the department’s decision to stand. However, the commission said in a written decision issued last month that Finklea’s 14-year-old criminal record was not “a reasonable justification” to reject him as a candidate.
Last week, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice filed a complaint in Suffolk Superior Court asking that a judge order the Civil Service Commission to reconsider, and to place Finklea at the top of the next hiring list.
Hall said that if a judge rules in Finklea’s favor, then “we can bring to light how subjective the hiring process is and how it impacts diversity.”
When asked about Finklea, Boston police spokesman Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy referred to the commission’s report, which in part affirmed the department’s decision. He said the department has “certain hiring standards” and officers are held to “the highest of standards by those that we serve.”
McCarthy also said that the department is committed to increasing diversity in hiring.
The makeup of the Boston Police Department is 33 percent minority; the city is 53 percent minority. Since 2011, half of all applicants to the department have been people of color, but the percentage of minority officers on the force has not increased.
The decision to not hire Finklea was made by a group of department employees that included a recruit supervisor, a deputy superintendent, and others. According to the report by the Civil Service Commission, there was no indication that the police commissioner was notified about the decision not to hire Finklea.
Hall called the closed-door hiring process a problem because it is not transparent. “I don’t think the process worked correctly,” she said.
During his appeal hearing, Finklea told the Civil Service Commission that he was “a product of a difficult environment . . . and that he has had to overcome many obstacles,” according to the commission’s report. He told the commission that he’d grown up in the Franklin Hill housing project in Dorchester, and had lived in Roxbury and Hyde Park.
In an interview with the Globe, Finklea said that at one point, he lived near the Boston Police Gang Unit station where he met Detective Fred Waggett, who made children feel comfortable visiting the station. Finklea soon joined Police Department youth programs.
“I concluded that becoming a police officer myself would be a great way to give back to the Boston community,” Finklea said.
A graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology, Finklea worked at Bank of America, and was a part-time employee at Best Buy when he applied to the department. He drove an old Honda Civic that needed repairs to pass inspection, but he didn’t have the money, and was often stopped by police, Finklea told the commission.
Between 2001 and 2010, Finklea received several citations for speeding, not wearing a seat belt, failing to stay in the right lane, improper exhaust equipment, not having an inspection sticker, and defaults and license suspensions for failing to pay traffic fines. He faced criminal charges for driving with a suspended or revoked license on three occasions, but those charges were dropped once his fines were paid. Warrants for his arrest were also issued for failing to pay fines.
“We’re talking about a low-income black male driving a crappy car in Boston,” Hall said about the traffic infractions. “Part of what he stressed to the commission was that he didn’t have the funds to get the car fixed because he had to help take care of his family after his mother passed.”
Finklea argued that most of the infractions did not fall within the five years that preceded his application to the department, which could have been grounds to exclude him. He did, however, receive a speeding ticket in Framingham the year he applied.
“Police are regularly required to drive Police Department vehicles, often in emergency situations and enforce the law . . . ” the Civil Service Commission wrote in its decision. “The [department] had reasonable justification to be concerned that [Finklea’s] driving history indicated that he would not responsibly drive and care for department vehicles as required by law and to bypass him therefor.”
But one of the commissioners issued a dissenting opinion stating that Finklea’s “stale” driving and criminal records were not enough for the department to bypass him and hire applicants who were lower on the list.
Some policing experts say that considering minor traffic infractions during the hiring process could create roadblocks for low-income residents and minorities like Finklea, who are interested in joining the force.
The department and civil service commission “seem to punish Finklea for having been a poor black man,” said Frank Rudy Cooper, a Suffolk University Law School professor. “The many interventions in his life for petty driving offenses are at best explained by the phenomenon of driving while black. It is frustrating that a city that is so in need of more racial minority police officers would stoop to conquer Mr. Finklea over stale, petty offenses.”
But Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and criminal justice professor at John Jay College, said studies have shown that certain traffic offenses can be indicators of the type of officer an applicant might be.
“Traffic violations would raise a red flag,” he said. “It was a predictor of your personality, how you carried yourself in following the rules, and aggressiveness.”
The case will go before a Suffolk Superior Court judge, who will determine whether to send Finklea’s appeal back to the Civil Service Commission for reconsideration.Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.