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‘There’s no way to get back 22 years’: Black officer wrongly accused of cocaine use plans to build school in Honduras with settlement money

Richard Beckers was one of five Black police officers owed millions in backpay after two decades of litigation. Now, he wants to give it away.

The Boston Police Department terminated Richard Beckers two decades ago after a faulty drug test that disproportionately impacts Black Americans falsely determined that he had used cocaine.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When the announcement came in 2002, Richard Beckers’s world crumbled.

“It’s not like you get two weeks or anything like that. Fired means fired,” he said in an interview with the Globe. The Boston Police Department terminated Beckers two decades ago after a faulty drug test that disproportionately impacts Black Americans falsely determined that he had used cocaine.

In the subsequent years, legal records show that the department fired four other Black men whose test results also inaccurately detected the presence of cocaine: Walter Washington, George Downing, Shawn Harris, and Ronnie Jones. Along with these other officers, Beckers mounted one of the strongest defenses in the country against the hair test, which the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission ruled cannot reliably differentiate between drugs that were ingested and environmental exposure.


“It’s fine if you want to look at a large population and get a sense of the incidence of drug use, but it’s not good enough to pick one particular person and say you used cocaine because of what we found in your hair,” said Alan Shapiro, Beckers’s attorney. “It just doesn’t have that degree of scientific accuracy.”

The commission ultimately decided in favor of the officers accused, concluding that “a positive hair test does not provide the 100 percent irrefutable evidence of drug ingestion that the BPD believed it did,” and the police department transitioned to a different type of drug test.

Beckers received more than $1.2 million in backpay last year, while three of the other Black officers also received partial backpay totaling more than $600,000. But after years of picking up the pieces, the damage had already been done.

Fatigued by ongoing legal disputes that he now navigates from his current home in Honduras, Beckers is nevertheless determined to see the bright side of things — which includes donating much of the money to support a local orphanage. Rather than use the settlement money to try to rebuild the life he had, the former police officer is now far more concerned with how he can give back to his community.


“There’s no way to get back 22 years of suffering,” Beckers said. “They can give us money, but that doesn’t change what happened.”

With no way to support himself after his termination, Beckers said he was forced to sell his house and car. “I couldn’t maintain it, they were going to take it all anyway,” he said.

In Boston, he felt like an outcast, and since his children were grown and his wife had passed away, Beckers decided to move to Honduras, where extended family helped support him until he could get back on his feet.

“To have everything taken away from you when you know you haven’t done anything? That atmosphere was so toxic, I couldn’t stay,” he said. “And it’s been a long process of hurt for the rest of the guys, too.”

Jones moved to Alabama and hauled trash for 15 years, Shapiro said, until a partial decision from the court enabled him to be reinstated at the police department just long enough to apply for retirement.

“Washington worked for UPS, Downing was working security — usually two, sometimes three jobs,” Shapiro added. “So it was hard.”

Beckers served on the force for 13 years before his termination. Officers with that level of experience are usually expected to find similar work at another police department. But the severity of the department’s accusations made it impossible for Beckers to remain in law enforcement.


“Of course I missed being part of something that I loved,” he said. “But who believes a Black man that says he doesn’t do drugs?”

Beckers eventually settled into a new life, opening up a bed-and-breakfast on the northern coast of Honduras called La Delphina in 2009. A year later, he and the other accused officers decided to legally challenge the police department’s decision.

“If you got the authoritative arm of the police saying we were doing drugs, immediately you believe it because of where it comes from,” Beckers said. “You can’t fight an individual; you fight the system, and the only way you can prove that [we were wrongly accused] is with science.”

Although a Civil Service Commission ruled in favor of the officers in February 2013, ordering the police department to reinstate them with backpay and full benefits in 2014, it took another eight years for Beckers to see a single dollar of what he was owed. Litigation on the interest for Beckers’s backpay is ongoing, which his attorney said could take up to another couple of years.

But after two decades, Beckers is tired of fighting.

“At this point, I just want this to end,” he said. “Every time the city and the police fight this, they bring damage to my family, and all our families.”

Richard Beckers is an ex-police officer who was wrongly fired 20 years ago and moved to Honduras.Handout

Still, he has chosen to remain upbeat throughout the process. Business has been slow at the bed-and-breakfast since COVID, but the occasional wave of students on spring break adds energy to his days. And if nothing else, he said, it’s been a blessing to be with family.


“There’s always something to keep your mind going,” he said with a chuckle. “And you have to make the best of a bad situation — it’s too late for us, but the good part is that this won’t happen to the next generation of police officers.”

For Beckers, making the best of things has also meant finding ways to give back. Touched by the ways his relatives supported him when he arrived in Honduras with no immediate family, Beckers has turned his attention to an orphanage in his neighborhood, where children’s access to education has been further limited by the pandemic.

“They really want to build a school for those kids, so most of the money is going to go there,” he said. “I’m at an age now where money is great, don’t get me wrong, but I have to help out more in the community.”

And after 20 years, he’s learned to be more than grateful for what he has.

“Thank God I’m still eatin’ and sleeping,” he said, “so I can’t complain.”

Ivy Scott can be reached at Follow her @itsivyscott.