Dozens of police departments across Massachusetts have left or are seeking to leave the state’s civil service process, saying the system that was created nearly 140 years ago to increase fairness and decrease political patronage in government jobs is now a roadblock to hiring the officers they want.
In the past decade, 37 departments have left the civil service system, which is the state process government agencies use for entry-level hiring, promotions, and discipline. Meanwhile, several more have filed petitions with the legislature to remove themselves from the hiring process, and Boston, the largest municipal department in the system, says it’s considering leaving, too.
“Is it too much of an impediment for us to be able to bring on good people?” Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox asked in a recent interview, noting that the city had “exhausted” its list of Bostonians who had recently taken the civil service exam before new results came in this month.
Of leaving civil service, he said, “We are definitely evaluating that.”
There’s no timeline for making a decision, he said, but it’s “on the table.” The department, Cox added, has to analyze “some benefits, some unwanted consequences that we want to make sure that we are prepared for if we do do something like that.”
The focus on civil service, which includes standardized hiring and promotional and disciplinary protections for workers to whom it applies, is driven by ongoing hiring woes for police departments. Over the years, the number of people seeking to become officers has declined, which has departments trying to remove impediments amid fears that fewer prospective officers means fewer quality choices.
Currently, 130 departments use the civil service process for hiring and promotion, including State Police and the MBTA Transit Police.
The main issue critics have with the process is its one-off standardized test. From the test scores, the state builds a ranked list of candidates from which departments need to hire in order of highest scores, with other considerations such as military veterans and residency. Chiefs critical of the process say it just rewards people who are good at taking tests, and it doesn’t allow departments to pick a diverse array of officers who are the best fits.
The Civil Service Division declined to make someone available for an interview, but a spokesperson said, “municipalities that participate in civil service are provided a fair, merit-based, cost-effective method for evaluating potential candidates.”
Northbridge Police Chief Timothy LaBrie said when he took the reins in 2021, it was his “first mission” to get out of the civil service process. He did so last year, after getting Town Meeting voters to pass the law change for Northbridge.
“Civil service served its purpose for many years. It just got antiquated,” said LaBrie, who has worked in the department his entire career. “It hinders hiring, big time.”
He’s only hired for one position since: a dispatcher who had been trying to become a sworn officer but had not tested well. He had a strong interview, and LaBrie hired him.
“Now he’s a total all-star” officer, LaBrie said. Now, both the department’s hiring and promotions will be done by a set of new policies, including a test the department will pay a consultant to create. But hiring will lean heavily on the chief’s interview, which isn’t part of the civil service process.
Tewksbury Chief Ryan Columbus said his town has tried to take a hybrid approach by removing hiring from the civil service process, but not promotions. But there has been resistance to such petitions on Beacon Hill, he said. If state legislators won’t accede, he said, the town will just take the issue to Town Meeting voters and pull out all together, the way Northbridge did.
“We have to have the ability and the freedom to select the most qualified candidates,” Columbus said, adding that it took nearly a year to hire for 13 spots the last time the department brought officers on. “Just because you took a test and showed up high on a list doesn’t make you the best candidate.”
Attleboro also has a home-rule petition seeking to remove its hiring process from civil service. Chief Kyle Heagney said the city is in the middle of a “hiring nightmare” because people are going to higher-paying departments, are leaving law enforcement entirely, and the civil service process is becoming an impediment.
“Police departments just have different needs now,” said Heagney, who said about a quarter of his department’s 100-officer force have been hired within the last two years.
Also making hiring difficult is fewer people are taking the exam. The tests give prospective officers two years of eligibility. Right now, just under 9,600 people are on the lists, according to the most recent numbers from the state.
In previous years, the numbers were significantly higher — more than 16,800 in 2013, 12,230 in 2015 and 13,866 in 2017, when the test was administered every two years rather than annually like it has been for the past three.
Police chiefs blame the lack of applicants on the anti-police sentiment in recent years, and the calls to defund the police that followed high-profile police brutality cases around the country.
The round-the-clock nature of the business, where rookie officers often have overnight shifts, and the inability to work from home like other career paths now offer, also chase people away from applying, multiple chiefs said.
“At the very time we needed the best and the brightest, some of them are thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore,’” said retired Northborough Police Chief Mark K. Leahy, head of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
Defenders of the civil service process acknowledge there need to be some changes. The state can’t, as it did a year ago, err so badly in administering a test that it has to throw out a crop of scores. It also needs updating, as most of the tests haven’t been redone in years, which was one element of a successful lawsuit that led a judge to rule that the police promotional exams disadvantaged people of color.
Senator Michael Brady and Representative Kenneth Gordon, chairs of the Joint Committee on Public Service, said in interviews that the state is reactivating a study committee created in the 2020 police reform bill to analyze civil service. They expect to have more concrete proposals in the near future, and they’ll use the committee, which produced a report last year that said it needed more time to examine the issue, to hold more hearings.
In the meantime, they said that while changes need to come, it’s still important for public perception that there be a standardized process for becoming a police officer.
“Civil service is worth saving,” Gordon, the Bedford Democrat, said. “It’s to create that framework of objectivity. It’s an issue of perception.”
The process does have support among police unions, who say it provides another layer of appeal against firing.
“People seemed to have forgotten Civil Service was created to even the playing field while addressing and correcting longstanding issues related to cronyism, nepotism and, what was once referred to as the ole boys’ network,” Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association president Larry Calderone said. “Undoubtedly, Civil Service is a much needed commission that all municipalities and towns should belong to.”
Still, some changes already have come, including an annual police test as opposed to biennial, a cheaper entrance fee for test takers, and a restructured exam for promotions.
Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Governor Healey, said the administration “believes there are opportunities for change in the civil service system to make it more effective and equitable. We will work closely with our Legislative partners and municipalities to evaluate additional areas for improvement.”
Brady, a Brockton Democrat, acknowledged that he’s been hearing from police departments that they’re having a hard time hiring.
“Everybody agrees that the civil service law that was written a while back needs to be updated,” he said. But, “you need some type of measuring stick we all agree on.”