State officials have approved a request from the city of Lawrence to hire seven new police officers from a civil service list comprised only of Spanish-speaking candidates, Mayor Daniel Rivera’s office announced Monday.
“Lawrence will be safer because of that,” Rivera said in a phone interview.
Monday’s announcement came after the state Human Resources Division last month rejected a similar request from the city to hire Spanish-speaking recruits who identify themselves as Latino or black.
Lawrence is one of several Massachusetts communities bound by a federal ruling dating back to the 1970s known as the Castro consent decree, which requires that affected municipalities recruit one racial or ethnic minority followed by three nonminority candidates from a civil service list for every four openings in police and fire departments.
The decree was intended to boost minority hiring in those communities, but Lawrence officials say the formula is stifling their needs in a city where roughly three-quarters of the 77,000 residents are Latino and approximately half are Spanish-speaking or have limited English skills.
The Human Resources Division rejected the earlier request because its language violated the consent decree.
The city’s new request was granted because it concerned a specialized skill, bilingual Spanish and English-speaking ability, which authorities in Lawrence demonstrated a need for by providing extensive data on factors including school enrollment and 911 calls, state officials said Monday.
In addition to Rivera, Lawrence Police Chief James X. Fitzpatrick also welcomed the hiring initiative, which he said will help create “a tighter bond with the community.”
“This is not about quotas, it’s about common sense,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “When almost half of your population is Spanish speaking and/or limited English you want to ensure that the men and women of the department reflect that.”
Rivera also rejected the notion that the city is filling a quota, noting that the candidates will have to score highly on a civil service exam given in English, pass physical and psychological tests as well as a background check, and successfully complete academy training.
The Lawrence Police Department currently has 96 police officers, 21 percent of whom are Hispanic or Latino.
“Sometimes people hear that we’re [launching] this effort to get Spanish-speaking officers and they think the quality is going to suffer,” Rivera said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
He said the new hires should be able to begin their academy training in May.
“If we are going to avoid the problems of Ferguson, Mo., with the death of Michael Brown; and Baltimore, Md., with the death of Freddie Grey; and New York, N.Y., with the death of Eric Garner; and Waller County, Texas, and the death of Sandra Bland, we cannot continue to hire in the same manner,” Rivera said in a statement.
In addition, he thanked civil rights groups, including the NAACP, for their assistance in working through the legal issues involved in the new request.
City Council president Kendrys Vasquez also expressed optimism about the initiative.
“I definitely think it will be something that the community is going to welcome with open arms,” Vasquez said. “I think it will send the right message to residents, that we will have officers who will have an additional understanding about the community as a whole.”
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the hiring plan will help Lawrence, where “many residents are foreign born and Spanish is their first language.”