The city of Boston has reached a $2.6 million settlement with three Black police officers and a cadet who were fired or disciplined for positive drug tests that used flawed methodology found to be discriminatory, capping a lawsuit first brought in 2005, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said Thursday.
Under the terms of the settlement, the four plaintiffs will each receive a portion of the $2.6 million payment based on their individual circumstances, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group that represented the officers, along with attorneys from WilmerHale, a Boston law firm.
The suit was initially filed nearly two decades ago, soon after the city began using the test on officers and recruits, the lawyers said. The test was designed to detect the presence of drugs in hair follicles, but during the litigation specialists said the test couldn’t reliably identify drug particles found in hair due to ingestion versus “external contamination,” the lawyers said.
The specialists testified that the texture of Black hair and grooming products Black people frequently use increase the likelihood of false positive results, the lawyers said.
“This settlement puts an end to a long, ugly chapter in Boston’s history,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights. “As a result of this flawed test, our clients’ lives and careers were completely derailed. The city has finally compensated them for this grave injustice.”
Mayor Michelle Wu said the settlement “marks the end to an important process to guarantee that every officer is treated fairly.”
“Under Commissioner [Michael] Cox’s leadership, we are strengthening our entire department by building more trust within the department and with the community, and supporting a workforce that reflects the communities we serve,” she said.
In 2019, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the hair test was prone to false positives.
“There was substantial evidence in the record documenting the concerns raised in the scientific community regarding the reliability of the test,” Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote at the time for a 6-1 majority. The lone dissenter, Justice Scott L. Kafker, wrote that the test was scientifically reliable.
“The department has a legitimate, indeed a compelling, concern about drug use and lying by its police officer candidates and need not accept a high risk of such drug use,” Kafker wrote. “The test it employed to detect such a high risk was also reasonably reliable, and consistent with merit principles.”
A federal appeals court had ruled in 2016 a lower court judge had erred when he dismissed the case, based on his view that the Black officers did not have enough evidence to prove that the test discriminated against them. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit did not offer a direct opinion on the test but found that a jury should have been able to decide whether the department could offer a different test, one of the factors a jury may weigh when considering discrimination claims.
Wu’s administration eliminated the hair test in 2021 as part of the city’s “Movement to End Racism” campaign.
“The hair test not only wreaked havoc on the lives of many Black officers, it also deprived Boston residents of exemplary police officers,” said Jeffrey Lopes, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, an advocacy group and a plaintiff in the case. “The City is still trying to make up for the loss of diversity on the police force that resulted from use of the hair test.”
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.