Efforts to diversify the Boston Police Department’s specialized units have had mixed success, with some units achieving diversity that far surpasses the rest of the department. But in many of the elite squads, women remain underrepresented.
Diversifying the top echelons of the department, including those special units, has been a priority for Commissioner William B. Evans, who said he believes he has made some progress.
“The argument has always been that they don’t get those jobs,” Evans said during a recent interview at police headquarters. “We’re striving to make sure they’re represented.”
After initially saying it could not provide information on diversity in the specialized units, the department provided data last week that show four of 11 of the department’s most popular elite squads have a higher percentage of people of color, compared with the department overall. For example, 81 percent of the school police unit are people of color, and 33 percent are women.
Evans increased diversity in the school police unit by expanding the size of the squad, which meant more officers were able to apply. He said it was important to have officers who resemble the youth they come into contact with in city schools.
“The young kids have to interact with the officers, and I want them to build trust and respect with the police,” he said.
Officers of color on the homicide unit increased from 24 percent in 2012 to 32 percent under Evans, even though the unit does not attract a large or diverse pool of applicants, Evans said. The job is demanding, stressful, and requires that officers work long hours.
The police academy, the hackney unit, and the crime scene unit also have more minority officers, compared with the department as a whole. Overall, the Boston Police Department is 33 percent minority.
When it comes to approving officers for specialized units, Evans said, “the biggest thing for me is how hard they work. I’m not going to put someone on the unit if they don’t deserve it.”
But since 2012 the gang, K-9, and drug units have become less diverse. Officers of color make up 28 percent of the gang unit, a 10 percent decrease, and people of color on the K-9 unit dropped from 35 percent to 23 percent.
A department spokesman, Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, said that because some units have as few as five officers, any slight change in staffing will show a significant percentage change. The largest specialized unit has 60 officers, he said.
Under Evans, the command staff is the most diverse it has ever been, according to the department, and last month, Evans hired a diversity officer to focus on recruiting and promotions. In 2015, Evans revived the police cadet program, a training initiative designed to get minorities into the department.
But civic leaders say the department still has a lot of work to do to diversify the squads that interact most with residents in some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.
The lack of diversity on the gang unit, which focuses on limiting youth violence, “creates a sense in the community that the police force does not have the linguistic and cultural competency to address the public safety concerns in our diverse neighborhoods, including in communities like East Boston where Spanish, language skills, and great diversity would assist law enforcement,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Roughly 75 percent of last year’s 46 homicides occurred in neighborhoods that are mostly black and Latino.
Evans should do as much as he can to ensure that specialized units consist of “the best officers, given their social and cultural backgrounds, with everything skewed toward cultural competence,” said J. Larry Mayes, a member of the police oversight panel that reviews Internal Affairs investigations.
Evans said the state’s civil service unit, which approves administrative changes related to hiring, denied his request to be allowed to consider an applicant’s language skills when hiring.
Mayes and other community leaders said that diversifying elite units will continue to be a challenge if the number of officers of color does not increase overall.
“These numbers are always going to be tough in terms of minorities because of how many the Boston Police Department can legally get in through the door,” Mayes said.
Women make up 13 percent of the department but remain underrepresented on all but two of the most popular specialized units: the school police unit and the crime scene unit. The number of women in the gang, K-9, and academy units has dropped since 2012, which Espinoza-Madrigal called “equally concerning.”
“Boston is a majority-minority city, but the Police Department has maintained an anemic level of diversity and a range that remains substantially unchanged over time,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “If the Boston Police Department professes to have a public commitment to diversity, they need to make sure it is manifested in improving the recruitment and promotion of minorities and women.”Jan Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.