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In ruling, judge finds Mass. police sergeant promotional exams to be discriminatory

A Suffolk Superior Court judge last week found the promotional process used to determine who becomes a police sergeant in Massachusetts is racist and impractical, asserting that it skews too heavily on a multiple choice exam that fails to reflect the rigors and realities of the job.

Put simply, in the words of Judge Douglas H. Wilkins, “The best test-takers are not necessarily the best police sergeants.”

Writing in a court finding resulting from a class action suit and dated Thursday, Wilkins said state authorities have failed to implement ways to “reduce adverse impact upon Black and Hispanic candidates.” Instead of improving its assessment format, the state’s Human Resources Division “promulgated lists to provide a thin veneer of apparent justification for a discriminatory process.”


The litigation focused on a slew of sergeant promotional exams between 2005 and 2012. Plaintiffs in the suit include current or former officers in Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Methuen, Lowell, Springfield, Worcester, and other communities in the state, as well as police for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The plaintiffs, all Black or Hispanic, were either not promoted to sergeant or experienced a significant delay in promotion based on their scores on exams administered by the state’s Human Resources Division, which consisted of 80 multiple choice questions culled from textbooks.

Education and experience comprised a 20 percent chunk of a candidate’s total score.

Wilkins noted that “a 1-point difference in exam score can make the difference between promotion and being passed over.”

“It’s a really big decision,” said Harold Lichten, an attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, of Wilkins’s ruling.

The judge’s ruling, Lichten said, makes clear that not only were the exams disparately harmful to candidates of color, but that state officials knew of superior assessment methods but continued to use the same discriminatory process anyway.


“We’re not getting the better police sergeants because we’re not getting to the skills” that make better police sergeants, he said.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, another attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, said Friday that “post-George Floyd, it is absolutely critical that police departments be reflective of the community they serve in order to foster trust, and that includes commanding officers and supervisors.”

“Research has affirmed that this selection process does not yield the bravest, best, most-qualified officers for the job,” she said. “We are looking forward [during the remedy process] to a system being put in place that allows more fairness for everyone looking to be a supervisor across the state… [and] a critical question is whether the next AG, whoever that is, will continue to appeal this case, or choose not to defend this discriminatory test any longer.”

A spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance said in a Friday statement, “The department is reviewing the decision and will determine appropriate next steps.”

It’s not clear specifically how many current or former officers who were stymied in their efforts for promotion could benefit from it, but Lichten says the number is “probably several hundred.”

Also unclear is the monetary damages such officers could receive. That issue, in addition to specifics on how to fix the promotional process problems, will be taken up by the judge at a future remedy hearing, according to Lichten. Until that hearing, the state cannot appeal.

Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University who is not associated with the case, said Friday that the judge’s ruling poses the question of what goal those who constructed the sergeant promotional process had in mind.


“The finding that they knew this was happening, they could fix it and they just didn’t, I think that’s a pretty devastating indictment,” she said.

Cavallaro said the tests represent a tool that can make or break a person’s career, and that there appears to be a disconnect between what the exams measure and what the public wants from its police.

“They chose to value memorization,” she said.

Christine Cole, a Boston-based policing consultant, said the judge’s ruling offered an opportunity for state and municipal officials to rethink how to assess officers for promotion. Such tests were installed decades ago to limit political patronage, she said, but have limitations when it comes to judging someone’s behavioral patterns.

The exams, she said, “shouldn’t be the method we use to select people who have really important responsibilities around safety.”

“The skills we’re trying to assess in police supervisors are behavioral,” she said. “Their behavioral skill set is what makes them stand out.”

Jeffrey Lopes, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said the case “is indicative of the need to continue the fight to create equity in police leadership and police membership.”

“This decision creates a foundation for all of us to continue to build greater portals of equity for underserved and underrepresented populations,” he said in a statement.


The court filing also delves into the history of the lack of police sergeants of color in some Massachusetts cities. In Worcester, for instance, no officers of color were promoted to sergeant between 1987 and 2001. Brockton had a similar stretch from about 2000 to 2012.

Ivy Scott of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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