To explain why diversity on the Boston Police Dept. was important, Giovanna Negretti acted as a translator for an elderly Brighton resident, Lilian Perez.
Speaking Spanish at City Council hearing Tuesday night, Perez told city councilors about being robbed in her home in 2004. She said she was then unable to find a police officer who could listen to her story in Spanish. When she came back to see police later on, she said she was told she should speak English.
The executive director of the advocacy group, Oíste, Negretti blamed the experience on a shortage of blacks and Latinos in higher positions and specialized units on the Boston Police Dept. Negretti contends the shortage hurts performance and perception, even hampering the ability to combat youth violence.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s about the safety of the children and the safety of the city.”
Top police officials at the hearing talked about efforts to increase diversity in higher ranks, as well as their own dissatisfaction with the dictates of civil service exam results.
The Boston Police Dept says diversity in command staff has increased to record levels. Department figures show people of color account for 40% of the command staff appointed by Commissioner Ed Davis. That’s above the levels when the department still used race-based hiring.
But figures were also compiled by District 4 (Dorchester Mattapan) Councilor Charles Yancey for all positions above the rank of patrolman, for which the pool of candidates is determined mainly by civil service exam results.
Yancey’s figures showed that in March, 2010, Asians, blacks and Latinos accounted for only 11 of the department’s top 100 positions. His figures also showed that all but 6 of the 74 lieutenants and all but one of 23 lieutenant-detectives were white.
And The Boston Globe reports that, at a ceremony in February, there was only one person of color among the 39 people promoted to sergeant and lieutenant.
Davis says barriers to more diversity include civil service exams, which he describes as not valid for deciding which candidate is the best for a promotion.
The exams are currently facing a legal challenge from police officers of color, including some from Boston.
The head of the city’s Legal Department, Bill Sinnott, said the tests are still considered a valid measure of skills and knowledge. When Councilor Chuck Turner suggested that the city stop defending the tests in court, Sinnott warned that abandoning the test would backfire.
“The problem with conceding against federal standards,” said Sinnott, “is that we’ll find ourselves as defendants with a new set of plaintiffs.”
Davis told councilors he would be willing to have more discussions about promotions with representatives of the Mass. Assn. of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO). He also said he expects a committee exploring possible changes in promotion policy will make recommendations to Mayor Menino by the end of the summer.
Though Davis said he favored more transparency about reasons for promotions, he said he was against promotions that were racially based.
“I will not change my standards,” he said. “I will not pick people based on race. They have to do the job.”
MAMLEO members say some black and Latino officers also missed out on promotions that would have been allowed by civil service. According to MAMLEO, racial disparities in command produce disparities in assignments and discipline.
A former Boston Police Superintendent, William Celester, argued that more people of color should be in command positions most directly concerned with youth violence.
“What those kids on the street need is role models,” said Celester. “These kids need to see somebody of color who’s in charge.”
The hearing was called by Councilor at Large Ayanna Pressley. In a statement released before the hearing, she said she hoped it would increase understanding of problems around diversity and help make recommendations for action. She said diversity should be considered in decisions around police command, though only as one factor.
“But that being said, my race, my gender, my background do inform the work I do each and every day and do mean I view things through a unique lens,” said Pressley. “And I think that it is important that there are officers on the street and in headquarters who have grown up in similar circumstances as the people they are serving.”