In a brewing dispute over local hiring authority, the City of Lawrence is pushing the state for permission to bypass civil service rules so that it can hire seven Spanish-speaking police recruits who identify themselves as Latino or black, saying a decades-old court order that was meant to increase racial diversity in hiring has backfired.
Mayor Dan Rivera said that the city’s request is based on a need to better diversify a department in a city that is predominantly Spanish-speaking and Latino.
“We need to hire cops, and we need to hire cops that represent the community,” Rivera said.
Referring to the hiring rules, he added, “Anyone looking at the face of this will say this makes no sense.”
At issue is a federal consent decree from the early 1970s, known as the Castro decision, that created a hiring formula for cities in Massachusetts whose police and fire departments failed to mirror their racial and ethnic makeups.
The formula required the included municipalities to recruit one racial or ethnic minority followed by three nonminority candidates from a civil service list for every four openings in the police and fire departments. Once a municipality successfully diversified its police and fire departments, it would no longer be bound by the consent decree.
Frank Bonet, Lawrence’s director of personnel, said the formula was well-intended and made sense at the time, because minorities in even the most diverse places, such as Lawrence, still only represented only about a quarter of the population.
Since then, however, the Latino community in Lawrence has boomed. Racial and ethnic minorities — mostly black and Latino — make up 82 percent of the population of roughly 77,000 residents. Only 21 percent of the city’s 96 police officers are Hispanic or Latino.
Bonet said attempts to circumvent the formula and pluck hires directly from an original civil service list — rather than from a list based on the court’s formula —
“We will never get past the 21 percent” diversity rate in the department as long as the city is held to the hiring formula, Bonet said.
A general civil service list ranks candidates who have passed an exam; their rankings are based on test scores, whether they live in the municipality where they are applying, and whether they are a veteran.
The state Human Resources Division earlier this month rejected a request to hire only minority and Spanish-speaking candidates, and Rivera said in an interview that he has hired outside lawyers to look into the city’s appeal options. They include asking the state attorney general to intervene or petitioning the federal courts for guidance.
In his request to the state, Rivera said that police departments across the country are under new guidance to better diversity their departments, following community unrest and protests of racial disparities in police departments, such as in Ferguson, Mo.
“Many recent national events highlighting predominately minority communities have caused many to call for improving police diversity,” the letter states, adding that a White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing “recommended that agencies build workforces encompassing a range of diverse backgrounds to strengthen community relations.”
A spokesman for the state Human Resources Division wrote in a statement to the Globe that Lawrence’s request was rejected because the agency cannot legally grant exemptions to agencies bound by the consent decree.
Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said Friday that her office would work with all parties toward a solution.
Other municipalities affected by the consent decree are Brockton, Holyoke, Lowell, Randolph, Worcester, Chelsea, Lawrence, New Bedford, and Springfield.
Legal analysts said a municipality can obtain an exemption to civil service rules in order to hire specific candidates — based on gender, or their ability to speak Spanish — if officials can prove the need to do so or demonstrate past discrimination against that group.
However, the standard for such proof is high, so that cities do not inadvertently discriminate.
“There are very serious constitutional consequences about purposely hiring one group over another,” said Harold L. Lichten, a labor lawyer who has handled cases borne out of the Castro decision.
For Lawrence to succeed in having the decree vacated, he added, “They need to show their numbers have been bought up substantially, which I’m sure they have, and in addition they could show it’s now a drag on minority hiring.
“They certainly could do it.”Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.