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Boston Police would gain from a multi-faceted promotion process

A decade ago, former Boston police commissioner Paul Evans tried to implement a promotional examination for higher-ranking officers that utilized simulations of police activity, reviews of an officer’s record and integrity, and an extensive interview process in addition to scores on a written test. It didn’t pan out. Now, Commissioner Edward Davis wants to find a better way to measure leadership qualities, communication skills, and supervisory abilities. And this time, the superior officers union should give their commissioner the flexibility to do so.

Any candidate for sergeant, lieutenant, or captain should be able to show proficiency on a written test of police procedures and criminal law. But that shouldn’t be the primary measure, as it is today. Once such competency is determined, perhaps through a pass-fail system, a deeper examination should begin.

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Davis is responding, in part, to complaints by minority officers who say that relying solely on the written Civil Service examination has resulted in a department lacking in diversity at the upper levels. Among the department’s 22 captains, for example, there is one Asian and no blacks, Hispanics, or women. Among 72 lieutenants, only six are minorities or women.

The addition of more minorities to the upper ranks is a good goal. A police force with expertise in the languages and culture of Boston’s neighborhoods would achieve better cooperation from residents. But a more expansive testing process should also yield well-rounded officers capable of handling all of the complex duties of urban police work; it would be a more effective means of determining promotions even if a lack of minorities and women were not a problem under the current system.

Evans spent $1 million to create exams that were never given. Before Davis goes out and spends an estimated $2.2 million on new exams, he should determine if the earlier exam might still serve the purpose.

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The Boston Police Superior Officers Federation has a legitimate fear that using measures other than the Civil Service exams could result in favoritism. Davis said he is willing to address that concern by bringing in police officials from outside departments to assess the suitability of candidates for promotion. He may also leave the current system in place for sergeants, whose duties often require a great deal of textbook knowledge.

In the past, the superior officers’ union undermined test reforms through complaints to the Civil Service Commission. It would be a shame if they did so again. Promotions in the military and business worlds, after all, rely greatly on performance. Davis believes a better test can be administered and scored fairly. The union should give him a chance to do so.

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