A lawsuit brought by four current and former troopers is alleging that the Massachusetts State Police routinely pass over female and minority troopers for promotion, and exile those who do earn advancement to far-flung barracks and overnight shifts.
Three women, with about 75 years of combined service time, and a former trooper who is black and said he retired in the face of discrimination, are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in August and updated in November.
The suit describes an ongoing pattern of alleged discrimination in a force that is overwhelmingly male and white. Many high-ranking and better-paying jobs are not posted publicly, the suit alleges, and those that are posted are quickly filled by white, male candidates whose qualifications were often less impressive than women and minority candidates who sought the same jobs.
Discrimination within the State Police “is getting worse over time,” wrote Lisa Brodeur-McGan, the Springfield lawyer representing the troopers.
In response, State Police spokesman David Procopio said by e-mail that the department “has promoted, and continually seeks to promote, qualified women and officers of color; accordingly, we will present a vigorous response to the lawsuit.”
“The department actively looks for opportunities to make discretionary promotions or assignments for qualified women and persons of color,” Procopio said.
Court records show the lawsuit was initially filed in August in Suffolk Superior Court with only one named plaintiff — Lisa Butner, a lieutenant whose career with the State Police began in 1992. The more recent complaint, filed in November, added three other troopers as plaintiffs.
The new complaint, which alleges that many other troopers have not come forward for fear of retaliation, also lists “all similarly situated individuals” as plaintiffs — a precursor to a potential class action.
Butner, who joined the State Police as part of the merger with the Metro Police Department, has sued the department before.
In 1997, she was one of four female troopers who sued the State Police over a policy that prohibited pregnant troopers from operating cruisers, wearing uniforms, working overtime, and interacting with the public.
In 2002, the troopers won $1 million in damages and an additional $300,000 for emotional distress caused by the policy, which required troopers who became pregnant to report it as an “injury” on a form at the human resources office and agree to diminished duties — or be sent home without pay.
Butner, who is black, applied for three internal affairs positions in 2013, according to the lawsuit. Each allegedly went to a white man of equal or lesser experience.
At a February 2014 meeting with then-commander Colonel Timothy Alben, Butner raised concerns about diversity in the upper ranks and throughout the State Police, according to the lawsuit.
The meeting touched on the allegedly discriminatory effects of a rule that grants two points on promotional exams to military veterans, according to the lawsuit, disadvantaging women and minorities.
Lieutenant Lisa Butner applied for three internal affairs positions in 2013, according to the lawsuit. Each allegedly went to a white man of equal or lesser experience.
And Butner described an alleged practice of transferring women and minorities who are promoted, according to the lawsuit. While white men are often allowed to remain in their units, the lawsuit alleges, women and minorities are sent to Western Massachusetts, “hours away from their homes, while working midnight shift[s].”
When the meeting produced no clear results, and more open positions were allegedly filled without being posted, Butner filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — the state body charged with enforcement of civil rights law. The lawsuit followed.
Proving discrimination poses particular problems, said Mark Brodin, a professor at Boston College Law School who is not involved in the lawsuit.
“The challenge is proving what’s in the minds of the decision makers,” said Brodin, whose experience includes extensive work in employment discrimination law. That means establishing — “through their conduct and through their words and deeds” — that employment decisions were most likely based on gender or race.
Diversity statistics, Brodin said, can help make that case.
According to data provided by the State Police, 132 of 2,183 sworn officers are women — about 6 percent; about 11 percent are nonwhite. The data show female and minority officers largely clustered in the lowest ranks — trooper, sergeant, lieutenant, and detective lieutenant. On the current force, three women and no minorities have reached the rank of captain or higher.
Promotions to many ranks, including sergeant, lieutenant, and captain, are largely governed by how applicants score on a state test; promotions to higher ranks and some discretionary assignments are typically chosen through an application and interview process.
While there are no female detective captains or lieutenant colonels and only one captain, the percentage of women who are majors and detective lieutenants is higher than the percentage of women in the general population of the force.
The percentage of minority officers drops as rank increases. Minorities make up 10.7 percent of the total force but make up a smaller percentage of every rank above trooper.
“These statistics are pretty compelling to make the beginning of a prima facie case of discrimination,” Brodin said in an interview. “If over time, you have a police department that has 30 percent or so minorities and you see very few minorities in the upper ranks, then you draw an inference from that that looks awful suspicious.”
Allegations of employment discrimination against police forces are relatively common, experts say.
Dawn Layman, president of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives and a major at the Lenexa Police Department in Kansas, said the organization hears complaints about perceived discrimination occasionally. And a 2013 survey the organization conducted showed the percentage of women dwindling as rank increases.
“If you look at some of the numbers across the board, it’s low to begin with. But rising through the ranks, that percentage gets smaller and smaller,” Layman said.
“Unfortunately, intentional employment discrimination still remains a substantial barrier in the law enforcement context,” according to a January 2015 report produced by the federal Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Much of the alleged discrimination in the Massachusetts lawsuit does not concern promotions that include a change in rank, but involves competitive transfers to open jobs that are desirable but approximately parallel.
The State Police, the lawsuit alleges, “has a longstanding practice of transferring white male officers to desirable positions and promoting white males, to the detriment of minorities and women.”
Marion Fletcher, a Marine Unit sergeant who has won the George L. Hanna Medal of Valor and was named Trooper of the Year in 2004, lost out on three jobs between February 2013 and September 2014, the complaint alleges.
Fletcher is one of the plaintiffs. Her nearly 30 years of service have been so decorated that a manager once referred to her collection of medals as “fruit salad on [her] chest,” according to the lawsuit.
But when she sought a sergeant’s post in the Gaming Enforcement Division — touting the awards she earned during undercover investigations into organized crime, money laundering, and illegal gambling — she was allegedly passed over for a man from the ballistics department.
When she applied for a homicide sergeant opening, interviewers allegedly ignored her resume materials and never asked whether she had been involved in a homicide investigation — instead asking how she thought she’d “fit in” within the unit.
And when she inquired about a unit commander opening in the Marine Unit, where her qualifications far surpassed the posted minimums in each of 14 categories, she received no reply. Only later did she learn a male candidate with no marine experience had gotten the job.
When Butner lodged her complaint at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, she highlighted Fletcher’s history of bypasses as an example of discrimination, the lawsuit alleges — a move that allegedly led to retaliation against Fletcher, who soon after received a negative evaluation.
Deborah Ryan, a lieutenant who works as a shift commander at State Police headquarters, was also allegedly passed over again and again between 2013 and 2015, sometimes for jobs that were never posted but were allegedly given to less qualified men.
The State Police, the complaint alleges, “has a formal policy requiring posting of all non-emergency positions but does not follow its own policy.”
Cleveland Coats, the only male plaintiff, allegedly didn’t take promotional exams, convinced by the promotions he’d seen happen that the process was discriminatory.
A state rule that grants two extra points on promotional examinations to veterans of the armed forces, the lawsuit alleges, made it unlikely that Coats would advance.
Under state law, veterans who pass civil service exams are given preference in hiring; promotions are not mentioned in the law.
Butner, Fletcher, and Ryan declined, through Brodeur-McGan, to be interviewed because they are still on the force. Coats did not return calls for this story.
Coats was allegedly “forced to retire . . . because of discriminatory treatment of him and other similarly situated officers.”
In the State Police, many of the highest ranks — detective lieutenant, detective captain, major, and lieutenant colonel — are appointed by the colonel. Such promotions are based, the State Police say, on criteria including prior test-based promotions and leadership and management skills.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.