The Boston Police Department distributed index-size cards promoting the police officer exam this year, organized informational seminars, and helped residents sign up for the test at neighborhood stations. The department also tapped religious and civic leaders to spread the word and fanned out to high schools and colleges throughout Boston encouraging people of color and women to take the exam.
“It was probably the greatest effort we ever made,” Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said in a recent interview. “More than ever we tried to promote this job. We recognize the importance of increasing our diversity.”
But despite this effort, a thousand fewer applicants signed up to take the civil service exam to become a Boston police officer than in previous years. Of the 1,536 who did sign up, 51 percent were people of color — a percentage that has remained about the same since 2011 despite the department’s targeted efforts to attract a more diverse applicant pool this year.
“I don’t know why that is,” Evans said. “It’s not by a lack of effort on our part. Unfortunately we don’t have control over how many people go and sign up.”
Evans said it is a “tough occupation for anyone to go into nowadays,” pointing to last year’s violence in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., that left eight officers dead following fatal police-involved shootings of unarmed black men. Last year, three Boston police officers were shot on duty; they all survived.
“I can’t help but think that hurts recruitment efforts,” Evans said.
While it would seem encouraging that half the applicants were minorities, the department faces other challenges in increasing diversity — including a built-in hiring preference for military veterans. The applicants who have benefited from that preference have been overwhelmingly white. People of color make up 53 percent of the city’s population, while the police force is 33 percent minority.
In some parts of Boston, even the most aggressive recruiting efforts are going to face formidable obstacles, policing experts say, because of a perceived lack of trust between communities of color and law enforcement, a sentiment that has been exacerbated nationally following the high-profile police shootings.
“The law enforcement profession has treated people of color inadequately,” said Lieutenant Charles P. Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers Inc. “It has consistently left a bad taste in people’s mouth.”
Some civic leaders also expressed concern that the state’s civil service law, which includes a rule that gives veterans “absolute preference” in hiring, will continue to pose an indelible roadblock to diversifying the Police Department.
“We should be able to create a scenario where someone who is not a veteran can serve his or her city,” said J. Larry Mayes, a member of the police oversight panel that reviews internal affairs investigations.
Civil service was established in 1884 in Massachusetts as a merit system, designed to prevent cronyism and political patronage. Under the system, prospective employees take an exam that determines their rank on a list of eligible candidates; when openings occur, administrators make offers based on these ranks. In police and fire departments, candidates are ranked by score in the following order: sons and daughters of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty, disabled veterans, sons and daughters of police and firefighters disabled in the line of duty, veterans, and then residents.
Some policing experts question whether these provisions in some way have done exactly what the civil service system was meant to prevent.
“Civil service came into being to level the playing field, but maybe the playing field isn’t leveled anymore,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “This may be the time when Boston decides that civil service has outlived its usefulness, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t still give preference to various constituencies.”
Although Evans said he “understands the system is not perfect,” he does not plan on challenging the veterans preference rule.
“I don't want to get into the politics,” he said, noting his three brothers are veterans. “They gave up a significant part of their life defending this country. I don’t believe that they don’t deserve what they get, but I believe we have got to find a better way . . . to get diversity on our jobs.”
People of color who are 65 or younger represent a small portion of the state’s veterans — only 5 percent — according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
In an effort to boost the number of minority officers, Evans reinstated the police cadet program, a paid two-year training for youth interested in a career in law enforcement, as a way to get around civil service laws. People of color make up 74 percent of the current cadet class. After they complete the program, they must take and pass the exam. Evans can fill one-third of all vacant positions with cadets.
This year, the City Council and the mayor approved a proposal to extend a residency requirement from one to three years for anyone interested in joining the Police or Fire departments as a way to increase diversity. The proposal was filed as a home-rule petition, which means it will also need approval from the state.
In 2015, the Boston Police Department opted out of the civil service promotional exam, and spent about $2 million to create its own test, but the effort did not result in a more diverse candidate pool.
Evans also said he asked the state’s Human Resources Division, which oversees civil service, for special language preferences in hiring to get more Spanish and Haitian-Creole speakers and Asians in the department. A spokeswoman for the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance said the department’s request was not granted because police officials did not provide additional information to demonstrate the need.
But other municipalities have taken it a step further.
In the past decade, a dozen cities and towns in Massachusetts have opted out of civil service.
“Civil service doesn’t allow the cream of the crop to rise to the top all of the time,” said Burlington Police Chief Michael Kent, whose department left civil service two years ago. Under his department’s hiring rules, applicants take an entrance exam offered by a testing company and veterans who score at least a 70 move on in the process but are not placed at the top of a hiring list.
Separately, the Massachusetts State Police are not in civil service, but allow two points to be added to the passing scores of veterans.
Leaving civil service comes with its challenges. Police departments are then responsible for creating a fair and equal hiring, promotional and discipline process, and supporters of the civil service law say that without it there’s no way to ensure that.
State Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, proposed legislation last week to change the civil service law in hiring municipal and state police officers to include a plan that would allow officials to consider a group of applicants with test scores that fall within an eight-point range. Veterans would still get two points added to their scores, but would not automatically be placed at the top of hiring lists.
Under the plan, an applicant for a municipal police department must reside in the city or town for five years before becoming an officer.
“We need to revamp the civil service exam and the process — not that the whole system is broken, but without change we’ll never get the diversity, and [the Police Department] will get whiter and whiter,” said Holmes.
The Boston Police Department could lose at least 106 officers due to retirement over the next five years, 37 percent of whom are officers of color.
The department’s patrol unit has become slightly less diverse than it was in 2004, when a federal court overturned a 30-year-old consent decree that required that for every white hire there had to be a minority hire.