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Why is Boston standing by a racist police promotional exam?

A group of Black sergeants have won a federal court case challenging a promotional exam that has blocked their advancement. The city should drop its plans to appeal and do away with the test.

Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston Police Department continue to use a promotional exam that has thwarted the careers of generations of the department’s Black officers.
Mayor Marty Walsh and the Boston Police Department continue to use a promotional exam that has thwarted the careers of generations of the department’s Black officers.Stuart Cahill

Paul Joseph has been a member of the Boston Police Department since 1989 and a sergeant since 1997.

But he has spent much of the last decade fighting the department over a promotional exam that has thwarted the careers of generations of the department’s Black officers, who have firmly held it to be discriminatory.

A federal court has agreed, and last month awarded Joseph and his fellow plaintiffs back pay.

But the city — in a stunningly bad move, especially at this moment — filed a motion in federal court Friday to appeal the ruling.

“I have a law degree from Suffolk, and a master’s degree in criminal justice,” Joseph, 56, told me last week. “The issue isn’t whether I’m qualified. The issue is this test — this discriminatory test.”

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For decades, the Boston Police Department has used a standardized, multiple-choice exam to determine the sergeants who advance to a higher civil service rank. Black and Latino officers insist that the test has worked against them.

Their complaints echo the arguments that surround standardized tests in general, including the SAT, which is rapidly falling out of favor. Critics cite decades of research that has found that standardized tests favor whites over Blacks and Latinos.They say the test doesn’t measure the qualities that make for effective leaders of other officers.

This might be a good place to note that this has no bearing on promotion to command staff positions, including commissioner.

Willie Gross, Boston’s first Black commissioner, holds the civil service rank of sergeant, having never advanced beyond it through testing.

“I don’t think there’s another city left in the country today that is still using this type of pen-and-paper exam for police department promotional exams,” said attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who is representing the Black sergeants. “It’s just been so debunked. It doesn’t relate to the qualities needed to be a good police supervisor.”

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This case, which was prompted by the promotional exams of 2005 and 2008, has dragged on for so long that many of the original plaintiffs have reached retirement age. It is one of multiple cases challenging the Police Department’s dependence on promotional exams.

And it is just one of several cases challenging the city’s treatment of Black employees. Chantal Charles, a manager in the collector-treasurer’s office, won a long-running case against the city last year. A Black firefighter, Mark Jones, has had a long-pending complaint against the city, as well.

Meanwhile, female firefighters have complained about their treatment, prompting a review that substantiated many of their claims.

The common thread in these cases is the city’s boneheaded refusal to admit to wrongdoing. Losing in court doesn’t seem to matter. The threat of wasting taxpayer dollars — both in settlements and in huge payments to often-ineffective outside counsel — doesn’t matter. The imperative seems to be to just fight, fight, fight.

That would have been misguided at any time — and, indeed, I have criticized the city’s actions in several of these cases over the years.

But now — in the face of a huge movement for social justice and equity — the city’s intransigence is even more galling than it might have otherwise been.

“Now is a particularly important time for the city to reassess what they’re doing,” Liss-Riordan said. She’s right.

Joseph said the back pay he was been awarded in the latest ruling — $39,417 — is little comfort to people like him who have lost the opportunity to have much bigger careers in the BPD.

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“If we were white, not only would we be getting the money, we’d be getting the promotions,” Joseph said. “It’s de facto segregation. It’s their dirty little secret.”

Aside from settling the case — please — the city can drop this exam today. It isn’t required under any law, and serves no purpose.

Actually, it serves one purpose: to promote the best test-takers, instead of the best leaders.

If Mayor Marty Walsh wants to demonstrate his commitment to equity, it’s hard to think of an easier place to start.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.