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How diverse are the Boston Police Department’s specialized units? They won’t say

Police officials say releasing racial and gender information about specialized units would reveal deployment numbers, risk officer safety. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In 2009, after criticism that the Boston Police Department’s specialized units were too white, then-Commissioner Edward Davis vowed to make those squads, which include the gang, drug, and K-9 units, more diverse.

At the time, Davis’s office routinely made information about the racial and gender makeup of those units available to the public. But Boston police officials are now keeping that information secret, preventing the public from knowing whether the department’s specialized units are more or less diverse.

Officials have declined to release the information because “doing so would reveal deployment numbers for those units and for officer safety we do not release specific deployment numbers,” Boston police spokesman Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy said in a statement. Yet police departments in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee provided similar information about the demographics of their specialized units to the Globe.


The department also could not say how many specialized units exist because it does not keep a list, and officials would have to review an organizational chart to determine which are “specialized,” McCarthy said.

Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said such information should be public “so that we can test whether [the units] reflect the communities they are policing.”

A 2015 Boston Police Department audit found that racial minorities make up 30 percent of most specialty units, including 40 percent of the K-9 Unit and 60 percent of the School Police and Ballistics units. The report did not distinguish between race and ethnicity in its count.

Information on the Youth Violence Strike force, also known as the gang unit, was not included in the report. About 75 percent of the 46 homicides in 2016 occurred in neighborhoods with large minority populations, and some of those killings were gang related.

“[Specialized units] are likely to interface with people of color and vulnerable populations,” said Espinoza-Madrigal. “To the extent these specialized units are not reflecting diversity in the community, that is a matter of great public concern.”


Women made up 6 percent of all specialty units, but made up 35 percent of the Firearm Analysis Unit and all of the Crime Stoppers Unit, according to the report.

Police officers of color say that reflecting the community served can make a difference in policing.

“In my experience as a minority, people look at me and want to cooperate,” said one police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak to the media. “They see a face they can connect with and identify with.”

When Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, raised concerns with Davis eight years ago about a lack of minority and female officers and supervisors assigned to specialized units, Davis promised that diversity would improve. Ellison told city officials that the lack of diversity was hurting the department’s ability to prevent homicides.

But, despite the department’s transparency at the time, nothing changed, Ellison said. This month, Ellison raised the issue again in a newsletter to his group’s members noting that when Commissioner William B. Evans became the department’s highest ranking police official in 2014, he, too, “promised to break up the monopoly in the specialized units.”

Still, nothing changed, Ellison said. Getting onto a specialized unit remains difficult and is “based on who you know.” He said it is particularly hard for women to join the drug unit because those positions are “thought to be primarily for guys.”


Officers can join specialized units by requesting a transfer, but the commissioner controls who joins them, said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College. Nolan said the superintendent in charge of a specific unit can decide to accept an officer, but the commissioner must approve the decision.

“These are extremely desirable jobs,” said Nolan. “You’re not responding to 911 calls, you’re not in uniform, and, in some cases, you have nights and weekends off.”

Nolan said the department’s reason for withholding demographic data “raises the suspicion that jobs seen as plum being reserved for certain people may be accurate.”

Under Evans, the Boston Police Department has the most diverse command staff in the department’s history, a development that civic leaders take credit for, claiming that outcry from the community led to the change. But without information about the makeup of the department’s elite squads, it’s difficult to know whether a similar outcry is warranted.

“A lot of things have changed because of community pressure, public pressure,” said Carlton Williams, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. “They have to tell you when it’s good and bad.”

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