Five Black men and one white woman are owed millions of dollars in back pay plus 12 percent interest after being wrongly accused of using cocaine when they were Boston police officers in the early 2000s, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled Tuesday.
The court unanimously agreed that the Boston Police Department had not properly compensated the six, who were fired between 2002 and 2004 when police used a now-discredited hair testing technology as the sole basis for termination.
"This is further vindication for these police officers whose lives were upended,'' said Alan H. Shapiro, the officers’ longtime Boston attorney. “I just hope that the police department wants to put an end to this now.”
The hair-testing technology generated a higher rate of false positives among Black police officers and triggered nearly 20 years of legal action before the state Civil Service Commission, and in state and federal courts. Other legal challenges to the hair testing are still pending in federal court.
But the six officers have won at every turn and Tuesday’s ruling was focused on how to translate their judicial success into paychecks from the city. The court ruled that the six are due back pay starting from when they were fired and continuing forward for at least 13 years. The judgment is compounded at 12 percent simple interest.
The six were all patrol officers and members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association when they were fired. According to court records and Shapiro, the officers affected were: Walter Washington (fired 2003), George Downing (fired 2004), Shawn Harris (fired 2003), Ronnie C. Jones (fired 2002), Richard Beckers (fired 2002) and Jacqueline McGowan (fired 2002).
Civil Service ruled in 2013 the department made a mistake when it fired the six solely on the basis of drug testing using strands of hair. The Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers has asserted the texture of Black hair creates a high rate of false positives.
The commission said in its ruling, “The present state of hair testing for drugs of abuse . . . does not meet the standard of reliability necessary to be routinely used as the sole grounds to terminate a tenured public employee under just cause standards governing civil service employees under Massachusetts law.''
The commission, a Superior Court judge, and the Supreme Judicial Court ultimately concluded the six should get their jobs back. Washington, Downing, and Harris have since rejoined the department.
Under state law, when a wrongly fired employee gets their job back, the amount of money they earned while working elsewhere is deducted from any back pay judgment, something that has already been calculated for Washington, Downing, Harris, and Jones, according to court records.
That set of four collectively received a preliminary payment of about $1 million in 2017, according to court records.
Now they are likely to share in another $3 million, with each receiving varying amounts based on their earnings after their firings. Shapiro said the exact dollar figure may change once final calculations are made.
No deductions — except standard taxes and retirement contributions — will be made from the awards to Jacqueline McGowan and Richard Beckers. McGowan took care of her mother rather than return to the workforce. And Beckers opened a bed and breakfast in Honduras in 2009, but has not reported any profits, the court said.
Shapiro said he expected each will now collect an estimated $2 million.
Shapiro said the patrolmen’s association has steadfastly financed the litigation for the past 20 years. "Without the resources they gave us, we wouldn’t have gotten this far,'' Shapiro said.
In a statement, a Walsh spokesperson said his administration has jettisoned hair testing with the backing of the police unions.
“We are reviewing the court’s decision,'' the spokesperson said in a written statement. "As a reminder, Mayor Walsh announced earlier this year that moving forward the Boston Police Department will no longer use the hair test for evidence of drug use in officers or recruits, a decision that was made in partnership with the police unions.”