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Janey orders city’s legal team to reverse course in lieutenants promotional exam lawsuit

Acting Mayor Kim Janey.Nancy Lane/Pool/File

Facing growing criticism, Acting Mayor Kim Janey on Thursday directed Boston’s legal team to reverse course on a discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of Black police sergeants and resolve the matter.

The case has dragged on for almost a decade since the sergeants filed suit in 2012 over the department’s lieutenants exam, alleging promotions predicated on the exam were discriminatory.

“Black officers in the Boston Police Department deserve a fair shot at promotions,” Janey said in a statement. “My administration will not waste tax dollars defending past department practices that created barriers to opportunity for people of color.”

Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, remained circumspect. “We’ve heard from the city, [but] we haven’t seen anything in writing,” she said Thursday. “We’re looking forward . . . to seeing a written confirmation that the city will not be continuing its appeal.”

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Janey’s statement came after the Globe reported earlier on Thursday the city’s lawyers had recently made two filings in the case, indicating that Boston was continuing the protracted battle, which is now before the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Before her statement, Janey was criticized by some of her mayoral opponents for perpetuating the legal fight, which began under Mayor Thomas M. Menino and continued under Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

“Last spring, I stood with the Black officers fighting the City to drop this discriminatory exam,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell in a statement. “Then-Councilor Janey joined me in this advocacy. Today, to see her continue to defend this exam is not only shocking, it’s shameful.”

In a tweet, Councilor Michelle Wu said, “There is no reason to continue to defend a racially discriminatory promotional exam. The Administration should immediately drop this case as the [US Department of Justice] has recommended.”

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Wu’s tweet referenced an amicus brief filed by the Department of Justice, last month, in which federal lawyers argued that the city is wrong to defend the exam and wrong to try not to pay the nearly $500,000 awarded to the sergeants who sued.

The years-long legal saga began in 2012, when a group of Black police officials filed suit after failing to advance because of a 2008 civil service exam.

The suit demanded that Boston scrap a multiple-choice lieutenant’s test. At the time the litigation was filed, it was seen as underscoring long-running tension between officers of color and department commanders.

More than three years later, in the fall of 2015, a federal judge ruled that the city had discriminated against people of color by using the 2008 promotional exam because it was slanted in favor of white candidates.

“This is a profoundly important case,” the federal judge wrote at the time, “one that evokes the finest of our nation’s aspirations to give everyone equal opportunity and a fair shot.”

Based on scores from that 2008 exam, the Boston Police Department promoted 33 sergeants to lieutenant, including five Black sergeants, over six years. But the judge found that the written portion of the exam had a “racially disparate impact” and that the multiple-choice questions were not sufficiently job-related.

That same judge upheld his previous ruling in 2017. The city appealed.

In late April, a little more than a month after Janey took over as acting mayor, an attorney representing the city filed a brief in the case pointing out that the plaintiffs did not challenge that the knowledge tested in the exam was job-related. A week later, the city made another filing, designating the attorney who would be presenting oral arguments on June 8.

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The moves sparked a round of fresh condemnation from critics earlier this week, who said the city was wrong to pursue its appeal.

“It makes no sense” that city officials are continuing the case, said Jeffrey Lopes, a detective who is president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, noting that Boston has fought and lost this battle on multiple occasions.

Given the discussions about reform and the importance of equity, he said, it was hypocritical to continue the litigation. “You’re pretty much saying you’re OK with a discriminatory practice,” he said.

Sophia L. Hall, supervising attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights, which filed an amicus brief in the case, said Tuesday it’s “yet another example of the City of Boston expending taxpayer dollars to defend against and prolong legally recognized systemic discrimination.”

“It is my hope that a new mayor will work with communities of color to support their advancement opportunities rather than continue the trend of reinforcing glass ceilings,” she said in a statement.

With less than five months to go before the preliminary election, policing has emerged as a top issue in the mayoral race. On Thursday, former Boston police commissioner William Gross, who was the city’s first Black commissioner before he retired earlier this year, endorsed Councilor Annissa Essaibi George.

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The Gross endorsement was the latest in a series of signals that Essaibi George is forging a different path on the issue than many of her opponents, several of whom are pitching themselves as committed to dramatic overhaul of the city’s approach to policing.

Janey recently unveiled a city operating budget proposal that includes a cut of roughly a third to police overtime spending and dedicates $1 million for racial-equity training for police, among a host of other measures. Equity has been a theme of Janey’s rhetoric since she became acting mayor on March 22.

Recent efforts have been made to diversify the Boston Police Department, which the Globe reported last year had become slightly more white, even as the city’s population grew less so in recent years.

In an attempt to further diversify the police force, Walsh last year pushed for the state civil service system, which governs the department’s hiring, to include a preference for prospective officers who had graduated from the city’s high schools. The civil service system, adopted in the 1800s, was originally intended to thwart patronage in government hiring. But critics say it prioritizes certain candidates, such as military veterans, with no regard for other demographics, leading to a wide pool of white male candidates.

Late Thursday afternoon, following Janey’s announcement on the case, Campbell, the councilor and mayoral candidate, knocked Janey for acting only after she faced criticism.

“I don’t need external pressure to hold our departments accountable or to implement the necessary policing reforms to ensure our department is diverse, transparent, and accountable,” said Campbell.

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Last summer, as a city councilor, Janey called for deeper cuts to the police department’s budget, among a collection of other policy changes, including a commitment to adding Black supervisors. She also advocated for eliminating “discriminatory practices in hiring and promotion,” including promotional exams, and a commitment from the city to “stop appealing decisions.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.