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Justice Department weighs in against Boston on police discrimination suit

A Boston police vehicle
A Boston police vehicleDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2019

Years ago — too many years ago — a group of Black Boston police officers sued the city, claiming that the promotional exam that serves as a gateway to the department’s top leadership positions discriminated against Black candidates.

They won, but the city kept fighting. They were awarded damages, and the Walsh administration appealed.

Last week, the US Justice Department weighed in on the case — and came down firmly against the City of Boston, and, by implication, the new labor secretary.

In a “friend of the court” brief filed last Friday, the Justice Department argued that the city is wrong to defend the exam and wrong to try to not pay the nearly $500,000 awarded to the officers who filed the suit.

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The message from Joe Biden’s Justice Department was crystal clear: The city should drop the appeal. And it should stop defending discrimination.

The exam itself is a relic. It’s a multiple-choice test that tells no one anything about an applicant’s ability to lead a staff or manage a crisis or communicate with the public. While these advancement tests were once common, most cities tossed them years ago, for the very good reason that they serve no purpose.

But in the Boston Police Department, where old habits are notoriously hard to dislodge, the same old practices are treated like something sacred.

This lawsuit was prompted by the test administered in 2006 and 2008 — so long ago that many of the original officers who brought the case have retired. Their monetary awards are a pittance compared to the cost they paid because their careers were thwarted. I have written before that the city’s insistence on fighting this suit — as well as others alleging discrimination — is a municipal embarrassment.

“Under the exam that the city is defending, someone can be a flaming racist and get promoted if they score well on the exam,” said attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan, who is representing the officers. “Is that really the position Boston wants to be taking?”

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Abandoning this case would seem like an easy call for Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who announced her candidacy for a full term Tuesday. This would be a concrete way to show her commitment to change. (Through a spokesman, Janey declined to comment, because this is “pending litigation.”)

City Councilor Andrea Campbell — who is, of course, running for mayor herself — has been vocal for years about the urgency of resolving this case.

“Kudos to the Biden administration,” Campbell said Tuesday. “I think it’s important that they got involved in this case, and I’ve been saying for years that the city of Boston needs to end the use of this promotional exam.

“I think the Biden administration’s involvement is a step in the right direction to get the city to do just that.”

Liss-Riordan argued that the city is treading dangerous ground by continuing to defend this discriminatory exam. The worst-case scenario isn’t that the city will keep losing. It’s that it might eventually find a receptive audience at the Supreme Court.

“The reality is that this is not an issue that civil rights advocates would like to see before the Supreme Court, given the current composition of the court,” she said. “There are plenty of people who would like to weaken civil rights protections.”

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There’s a certain irony in this kind of civil service exam. Initially, measures like this were intended to counter cronyism and nepotism. Now they just work to help cement an old network that doesn’t reflect the city.

The city says it has taken steps to overhaul its promotional exams and make them less discriminatory. But the Justice Department argued that those changes haven’t altered the effect of the tests — and the criticism that standardized tests don’t measure leadership ability ring true.

Dropping this appeal would be a way for City Hall to show that it is serious about equity. And it’s easy: It’s just a matter of dropping a case and paying some long-overdue damages.

We’ll find out soon enough whether change is more than a slogan.


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