Reimagining the city's police force: Begin with the hiring

The continuing killings of black men by police officers in the United States and the national and world-wide protests against these crimes have spurred demands for changes in policing policies and practices that vary from a range of incremental police reforms to a full-scale reimagining of how we ensure our communities’ safety.

I’m on the side of reimagining. Let’s start with looking at how we hire police officers.

I have spent most of my work life in health care where the hiring for positions follows the standard practice for employment in most professions: You look at what you’re trying to accomplish and at what outcomes you’d like to see, then design both the duties and the characteristics of the people you’d like to hire.  

For example, you’d want a primary care doctor to be licensed and to have gone through a residency. Once you know that he or she has the qualifications to be a good candidate for the position on paper, an interview follows where you look for characteristics that would make the doctor a person who is easy to speak with, who is caring of others, who is not biased against the patients the doctor is likely to see, who has empathy for those who have an illness/disease, who can handle a patient in crisis, who is a team player who can easily get along with colleagues, who is good at follow up, and who can handle difficult patients. Then you conduct reference checks to make sure the person’s work record is as recounted in the interview.

How is a Boston police officer hired? The City of Boston website indicates that you need to take a civil service exam (a multiple choice test held every two years by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), to have a driver’s license, to be between 19 and 40 (veterans can be older), to have a high school diploma, or GED, or 3 years of military service, and to have lived in Boston for a year prior to the test.

If you pass the multiple-choice exam, your name is placed on a “Boston Police Officer Eligible List.” The Boston Police Department takes candidates based on the list. The next part of the process involves a background check, a drug test, and a review of the application by detectives. If you get through this part of the process, you receive a “conditional offer,” which is followed by medical and psychological exams, and a tests of your physical abilities. If you pass everything, selection for a position is based on your rank on the “eligible list.”

There are many problems with this system. Like medical providers, the ability of police officers to be successful in ensuring peace and safety depends on characteristics like judgment, empathy, being unbiased, and able to handle people in crisis. Indeed, much of policing is about dealing with behavioral issues like drug/alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicidal ideation, and violent tendencies, so you might assume that rank in the “eligible” list would include a higher position for those who are social workers or from a human service background. But you would be wrong.

Rank is mostly determined by military veteran status. Veterans with honorable discharges go to the top of the police lists. While that’s a great benefit for former soldiers, it has other negative impacts on how our police departments are constituted.

A 2017 study by the Marshall Project and USA Today noted that “the prevalence of military veterans can … complicate relations between police and the communities they are meant to serve.” The Marshall Project report added that Massachusetts is one of two states with the “most favorable laws for vets seeking police work. An honorably discharged veteran skips to the top of police hiring lists, which makes it more difficult to hire women and minorities.” According to census data, more than 90 percent of Massachusetts veterans are “non-Hispanic White” and 95 percent are male.

The most-favored status for veterans also makes it difficult to hire staff competent in dealing with behavioral issues. Former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole noted in the Marshall study that veterans’ preference makes it hard to change the culture of policing, saying, “I want to attract people with very different skill sets. We are facing complicated issues with people who are in crisis every day. Why wouldn’t I want people who majored in human services? Or psychology or sociology?”

The Marshall Project report also noted that “in Boston, for every 100 cops with some military service, there were more than 28 complaints of excessive force from 2010 to 2015. For every 100 cops with no military service, there were fewer than 17 complaints.”

So, my question is this: If our goal for policing is peace and safety, why do we recruit people trained as warriors rather than as social workers? Communities have told elected officials that they would prefer preventive policing with walking patrols, electronic alert systems to let people know when criminal acts are occurring in their communities, and systems to deal with families in crisis.

The time has come to reimagine how Boston can ensure peace and safety across our city, and we need to think and act boldly. We should stop giving military veterans priority in employment if we value a different set of skills than military training and make as our goal a more diverse workforce that is gender-balanced and reflective of the racial and linguistic make up of our city.

We need to create different types of positions for different types of policing, some to deal with criminal acts, and some to deal with behavioral issues. A major part of policing is resolving conflicts with people with domestic issues and with those who have behavioral issues, such as mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse. We need to look for people trained to work on those issues.

Reimagining policing includes opting out of the Civil Service system, as more than 20 Massachusetts municipalities have already done. Boston needs to be enabled to craft the policing system it believes will work best, and then hire the people, including many more women and persons of color, most qualified to provide the services the city needs to ensure peace and safety for its residents.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident and co-founder and former CEO of the Codman Square Health Center. His column appears weekly in the Reporter.