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Lawyers’ group sues BPD for records on hiring practices

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The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice this week filed a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department seeking documents related to the department's hiring practices, including data on a controversial "hair test" used to screen officers for drug use.

The lawsuit follows two public records requests made to the Police Department, including one made more than a year ago seeking the number of hair tests administered to black and white officers and department applicants. The same information was sought on urinalysis tests. The committee also asked for the outcome of those tests.

The request was never fulfilled, according to the group.

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"It shouldn't have to take a lawsuit to get information which is rightfully public record," Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee, said Thursday. "This type of transparency is required by law. We should be able to have this transparency without going to court."

The hair test is the subject of a lawsuit in the First Circuit US Court of Appeals. In that suit, the Committee argues that the test is discriminatory because black officers are more susceptible to false positives because of their hair texture. Separately, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has determined that the hair test is unreliable and ordered the Boston Police Department to reinstate six officers who were fired due to positive test results. The city is appealing that decision.

The suit also demands the department hand over records — first requested in December — on the gender and racial composition of the latest police recruit class.

For that data, the committee received a response from the Office of the Legal Advisor, which said the request would take "longer than 10 days to be fulfilled."

"The law is clear that public records need to be made available within 10 days of a request and in particular a law-enforcement agency should be following the law," said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers' Committee. "The public should not have to beg for the release of public records. This type of flouting of the law is unacceptable."

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The Boston Police Department was unable to respond to the allegations made in the lawsuit because they have not yet reviewed the complaint, a department representative said.

"We haven't seen what they're alleging," said Boston police spokesman Officer James Kenneally.

Sellstrom said recent court decisions have highlighted employment practices at the department that are "neither fair nor evenhanded."

In November, a federal judge ruled that the city discriminated against minorities by using a promotional exam to select police lieutenants that was slanted in favor of whites. And earlier this month, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ordered the department to reinstate a black Boston police recruit who was fired for allegedly cheating during an exam. The commission found that the department imposed "harsher discipline" on minority recruits than white ones.

Sellstrom said the committee's goal is to "dismantle these practices and move forward to equal opportunity."


Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.