Sixteen years ago, the Boston Police Department reached a milestone — for the first time in modern history, the force resembled the community it served.
With Hispanic and Black officers representing about 40 percent of the department, a federal judge lifted a consent decree that mandated hiring one minority candidate for every white candidate, capping a 30-year push for racial parity with the city’s population.
It seemed like a turning point for a department with an enduring reputation as a racist institution. But the achievement was short-lived.
The department since then has failed to keep up with the shifting demographics of the city. Despite pledges from Mayor Martin J. Walsh to diversify the workforce, the police department has become slightly more white as the city’s population has become less so.
That gap has come under scrutiny as cities across the country, including Boston, reckon with accusations of law enforcement bias, brutality, and a lack of diversity following the high-profile killings of several Black people by police.
“If you walk into roll call at the local precinct in Roxbury you won’t see a group that is representative of the community,” said Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, a Black 20-year veteran and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “It wasn’t like that when I started.”
Today, police data show about 65 percent of the department’s sworn officers are white, compared to about 52 percent of the city’s population. About 21 percent of the officers are Black; 11 percent Hispanic; and 2 percent Asian.
The integration of the department has come a long way since 1973, when Black officers made up only 2 percent of the department, and 1981, when that number hovered near 12 percent. Still, the latest figures reveal that Boston’s blue line in no way mirrors the city’s current demographics.
Erasing racial disparities is how police departments build trust with the people they serve, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
“Good police departments want people to come from a cross-section of the community,” he said. “It’s about establishing legitimacy.”
That’s crucial for departments with reputations of racial bias, including Boston, where 70 percent of all street interrogations involve people of color.
In 2014, Walsh took office pledging to make the city’s workforce less monochromatic. In one of his first moves, Walsh and then-commissioner William Evans overhauled the mostly white upper echelon of the police department, installing what they called the most diverse command staff in its history. The department as a whole, however, was still about 63 percent white.
When Evans stepped down in 2018, Walsh promoted William Gross, the city’s first Black police commissioner. While the pair have been vocal about the need for a more diverse force, their efforts haven’t halted the whitening of the department.
In a statement, Walsh spokeswoman Samantha Ormsby said ensuring that Boston police reflect the diversity of the city’s communities remains one of the mayor’s priorities.
“Mayor Walsh is committed to continuing this work as we move forward, especially as we engage in a much broader conversation about policing in the city and nationwide,” she said.
Gross acknowledged in a recent interview that the department’s push for diversity is a work in progress during a moment of intense scrutiny.
“In these times of anti-police sentiment and seeing what’s going on, there’s a lot of people of color that say, ‘Do I want to go into this type of job? Will I be safe? Is this job for me?’ ” he said.
Gross said his staff will continue aggressive efforts to recruit police of color.
“Boston used to be the most prejudiced city with the most prejudiced police department,” Gross said. “We can’t have it go back to the days of the good old boys and overt racism. In this city, and in this department, everyone is welcome.”
“So it’s so important that our police department look like the communities that we serve so that they know we have empathy, sympathy, care, and respect that we can get rid of these damn stereotypical views and perceptions about ethnicities.”
Gross pointed to the 2015 reinstatement of the Boston Police Cadet Program and his own hand-picked command staff as signs of progress. The command staff — the deputy superintendents and superintendents appointed by the commissioner — is made up of 56 percent minority or female officers.
Chrispin, whose organization’s mission is to improve diversity and support advancement for minority officers, said Walsh and Gross deserve some credit for diversification efforts. But he and other department observers believe that Gross’s commanders have little power to effect meaningful change in how the department interacts with residents.
“It’s not just having a diverse command staff, it’s putting people into a position where they can effect change and deliver better service to residents,” he said.
The effects of a lack of diversity can be subtle, Chrispin said.
“We want officers asking themselves, ‘Would I be doing this is if the subject was white?‘”
Many of the Black and Hispanic officers hired in the initial years of the consent decree have retired or already returned to civilian life, Chrispin said. Influxes of new recruits have failed to make up for the attrition, he said.
Detective Larry Ellison, former president of MAMLEO and current board member, said the 2004 termination of the consent decree has allowed many of the same age-old issues to slowly reemerge.
“We’re still talking about hiring, promotions,” he said. “Once the consent decree expired, so did the commitment to diversity, in my opinion.”
Delores Jones-Brown of the University of New Haven said diversity within a police force is multifaceted and isn’t a cure-all for a department’s bias and brutality woes.
“We have to stop thinking about diversity in policing as a panacea,” Jones-Brown said. “Simply having officers who look different than how a department has traditionally looked doesn’t mean they’ll act differently from how a department has traditionally acted.”
Jones-Brown, who is Black, said purposeful actions — such as employing a diverse command staff that takes thoughtful steps to eliminate racial bias in policing — can better shape the culture for an entire department.
Boston’s court-ordered diversification in 1974, a product of a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by a cadre of Black officers, forced police officials to hire at least one minority candidate for every white one. It also set timetables for hiring and promoting Black and Hispanic officers.
At the time, just 2 percent of Boston police were Black. By contrast, about 20 percent of Boston residents were Black.
The decree appeared to have an immediate effect. By 1983, the number of Black sworn officers had jumped to 12 percent.
The city continued to make progress, but not enough to head off one of the ugliest episodes in the city’s history.
In 1989, Charles Stuart provided police with a vague description of the man he said shot his pregnant wife, Carol, to death in an attempted robbery in Mission Hill. Six feet tall. Around 30. Black.
Police ran a dragnet through the neighborhood, conducting dozens of stop-and-frisk searches of innocent Black men while aggressively questioning others, all in search of a suspect who did not exist. Stuart had lied. Police later determined he had shot his wife in a scheme to collect on an insurance policy.
Through the years, the consent decree faced several legal challenges. In 2004, after several white candidates sued the department for discrimination, Judge Patti B. Saris found that the department had achieved racial parity and ruled the provision that mandated hiring one minority candidate for every white recruit was unconstitutional.
Attorney Nadine Cohen, who represented MAMLEO, said at the time that lifting the consent decree could lead to the return of a predominantly white department.
Reached Monday, Cohen said she’s not surprised by the backslide of the diversity figures. “Police departments had to be dragged kicking and screaming to desegregate,” she said. “Were it not for the original decree, the numbers would be worse.”
Former city councilor Charles Yancey said the department needs to go further than its current diversity efforts.
“Even with a black police commissioner. . . if you don’t have a culture that respects everyone, then there’s no question something like what happened to George Floyd could happen again in our own city,” Yancey said.