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What will it take to diversify the Boston police?

From recruitment programs to lawsuits, efforts to diversify the department over the past decade have only made a dent in the numbers. An independent review hopes to bring real change.

The Boston Police Department held a recruit graduation ceremony at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center earlier this year. Recruitment and retention of women and officers of color remains a challenge for the department.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As city officials continue their decades-long push for a more diverse police force, the watchdog agency charged with holding Boston officers accountable has hired two firms to independently review the department’s recruitment and retention of women and people of color.

Recent efforts to diversify the police force — which has failed to keep up with the city’s ever-changing demographics — have hardly moved the needle. Data provided by the Boston Police Department show that as of October, nearly two-thirds of the department is white, in a city where white residents are 52 percent of the total population, according to the most recent US Census.


“BPD needs to be reflective of the community it serves, and if we want to see change, we have to do it,” said Stephanie Everett, executive director of the city’s Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, which sought out the independent review. “No more looking at data and talking about what we should do — this is about what is actually being done to make sure the numbers are changing.”

The Boston-based firms, Strategy Matters and Conan Harris & Associates, began their review last month, Everett said, and are expected to conclude recommendations next summer on ways to “eliminate disparate treatment of BIPOC employees” by a department that some say will only change if reform is mandated.

Currently, Black officers represent roughly 20 percent of the department, Hispanic officers 10 percent, and Asian officers just under 3 percent. Meanwhile, Black residents represent over 24 percent of the city’s population, Hispanic or Latino residents 20 percent, and Asian-Americans close to 10 percent. Overall, women make up less than 15 percent of uniformed officers, despite representing more than half the city’s population.

But challenges with diversity go beyond the numbers — departments across the Commonwealth have a culture and reputation of racial- and gender-based discrimination to contend with, and Boston is not exempt. After two decades of litigation, several Black male officers and one white female officer were awarded back pay by the city this year following their wrongful termination because a drug test, which disproportionately returns incorrect results for Black people, falsely determined they had used cocaine.


More recently, a Suffolk superior court judge ruled in October that the process used to promote police officers to sergeants in Massachusetts is racist and impractical and that state authorities have failed to “reduce adverse impact upon Black and Hispanic candidates.”

Over the past two years, public outcry for police reform and accountability has prompted promises from city leaders that have largely gone unfulfilled.

Before his departure to serve as President Biden’s secretary of labor last year, former mayor Martin J. Walsh considered a Diversity and Inclusion unit for police, but it was never created. (The department’s lone diversity officer left to join the Fire Department in March.) Walsh additionally filed a proposal to give Boston high school graduates preference in the selection process for police recruits. The proposal was approved by City Council, but is still pending State House approval.

Current Mayor Michelle Wu campaigned hard on a police reform platform that included diversifying the department. So far, her biggest success has been building on acting mayor Kim Janey’s appointment of Everett by expanding the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency’s budget by $165,000.


But Larry Ellison, former president of the Massachusetts Association for Minority Law Enforcement Officers, called on Wu to do more. He said the mayor has the ability to directly influence the department’s upper ranks by authorizing the police commissioner to place deputy superintendents in charge of neighborhood police districts, instead of captains. With this power, Ellison said, the commissioner could appoint qualified people of color, regardless of their rank, to head districts with large minority populations.

Wu’s office directed the question to a spokesperson from the Boston Police Department, who said decisions concerning leadership of the districts are the police commissioner’s responsibility. Currently, all 15 districts in the city are led by white male captains.

Advocates for greater diversity within the department say two major challenges are poor recruitment in minority communities and limited mentorship opportunities and resources for retaining women and people of color.

“The city does a horrible job recruiting and encouraging folks to take the [entrance] exam, and because they lack in recruitment, underrepresented communities definitely aren’t getting the message,” said Israul Marrero, chair of the Latino Law Enforcement Group of Boston.

Marrero said the department should offer preparatory classes to potential recruits and officers of color seeking a promotion, ideas police Commissioner Michael Cox said he supports.

“It’s usually the most diverse groups that are most impacted by a lack of mentorship,” Cox said in an interview. “So I’m all for removing impediments that keep people from being successful.”


Fifty years ago, it took a federal court order to successfully diversify the Boston police, transforming a department where Black men made up less than 4 percent of uniformed officers, and other minorities were an even rarer presence.

The court mandated that the city select police recruits from a list that included one minority candidate for every white one. Nearly 30 years after the order, The New York Times reported a quarter of the department’s officers were Black. Those changes extended into the upper ranks, too, bringing diversity to the slate of leaders responsible for making day-to-day decisions in each district. In 2001, Black men accounted for 14.3 percent of the department’s sergeants and 8.7 percent of its captains.

But when a judge rescinded the order in 2004 after determining that parity had finally been achieved, the impact was swift. Less than a decade later, in 2013, the Globe reported that all 19 of the department’s captains were white men. Of its 47 lieutenants, there were three Black men, one Asian man, and two women.

“Whenever the court ruling expires, diversity expires as well,” said Ellison, who was hired when the 1973 court order was in full effect, and helped launch multiple discrimination-based lawsuits against the Boston Police Department during his decade-long tenure as leader of the Massachusetts Association for Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

Little has changed since, due largely to lukewarm recruitment and retention efforts that have failed to keep pace with the wave of retiring Black and brown cops, many of whom were higher-ranking officers.


Since 2015, the department has relied on its reinstated cadet program to bring in diverse talent, with mixed results. Just over 40 percent of the current cadet class is Black, and roughly 20 percent is Hispanic, according to department data. However, skeptics are quick to note that a diverse class of 31 cadets will hardly make a dent in the overall numbers.

“Obviously the police department doesn’t have a lot of minorities,” said Jeffrey Lopes, current president of the minority officers association. “For me, the big question is: What are we going to do to make sure we’re recruiting people of color, and women as well, at a rate where we don’t see this significant dip in numbers in terms of diversity?”

Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her @itsivyscott.