Most of Boston’s mayoral candidates are hammering away at Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis’s record for hiring and promoting minority police officers. It’s an entirely justified complaint — but aimed at the wrong target. Davis actually has a good record of promoting women and minority superintendents to his command staff when such decisions are solely under his control. The biggest barrier to diversity on the force isn’t Davis’s attitudes but the grip of the Civil Service, which currently controls both the entry exams for police officers and promotional exams for sergeants, lieutenants, and captains.
Criminologists generally agree that cities with large minority populations benefit from the presence of minority officers and supervisors. A diverse force is especially useful in intelligence gathering and community policing. In Boston, complaints are escalating about the absence of minority officers in the upper ranks. Currently, all 21 of the department’s district captains and temporary captains are white males, as are 42 of the 48 lieutenants.
Changes are coming. Boston Police officials are now meeting with a private company that creates aptitude and ability tests for police officers. By closely defining the type and frequency of tasks performed by higher-ranking officers, the test makers intend to create a measurement tool that is more reliable than current Civil Service promotional exams. Communication skills, leadership qualities, and experience will be measured along with knowledge of laws and regulations. Davis is hopeful that such a test will give minorities more access to the upper ranks.
Scrapping the Civil Service promotional exam will raise inevitable concerns that favoritism could creep into the promotion process. There are safeguards, however. Urban departments with similar concerns lend each other officers for the purpose of grading the exams and conducting interviews. That would ensure that every candidate gets an independent assessment.
It will be harder — at least politically — to eliminate the Civil Service entrance examination for police officers. Currently, military veterans enjoy advantages so great that one who gets the minimum passing score of 70 is bumped above a nonveteran college graduate who scored 100. Applicants who sacrificed for their country deserve some extra points on the exam. But the absolute veterans preference shuts out too many talented people, including minority applicants.
Once rationality is brought to the promotional exams, the Boston Police Department should explore the possibility of devising its own testing procedures for entry-level officers. If Boston were to require a minimum of an associate’s degree for police officers — as many cities do — there would be no need for a Civil Service exam that largely measures basic reading comprehension and reasoning skills.
Currently, minority officers make up about 44 percent of the department’s uniformed force. But recent police recruit classes showed a sharp decline in their numbers. Davis may be feeling the brunt of that decline right now. But both he and the mayoral candidates are on the same page: Public safety will suffer if the trend continues.