Federal Appeals Court to Hear Police Diversity Case

Employment, Police Accountability, Racial Justice



Boston, MA – A federal appeals court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in a case of far-reaching importance concerning diversity in police forces throughout Massachusetts.  In Lopez v. Lawrence, Black and Latino police officers are challenging an examination used by Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, Methuen, Springfield, Worcester and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to determine promotions to sergeant positions.  The plaintiffs contend that the exam disproportionately and unfairly excludes minority officers from advancement.

“Diversity in police ranks is a key component of community representation and accountability,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, an organization involved with the case.   “Our communities are safer and stronger when minority officers have an equal opportunity to advance and when police departments reflect the neighborhoods they serve.”

The Lopez plaintiffs cite a number of critical flaws in the promotional exam, including whether it is appropriate to use a written multiple-choice exam to measure skills such as leadership, supervisory abilities, and command presence.  A federal judge found the exam to be valid, a ruling that the First Circuit is now reviewing.  The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Justice, has filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs urging the First Circuit to vacate the lower court’s decision.  Counsel in the Lopez case include Harold L. Lichten and Benjamin Weber of Lichten & Liss-Riordan, P.C., and Steve Churchill of Fair Work, P.C.

A separate case, Jones v. City of Boston, challenging a discriminatory and unreliable hair test used by the Boston Police Department to determine drug use, is also on appeal to the First Circuit.  In Jones, the Lawyers’ Committee contends that the hair test is particularly unreliable for Black officers due to their unique hair characteristics.  Last year, the First Circuit ruled that the hair test disproportionately affects Black officers.  Nonetheless, a federal judge upheld the discriminatory test, a ruling the Lawyers’ Committee is now appealing to the First Circuit.  In a companion case, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission found that the hair test is unreliable and required the Boston Police Department to reinstate six officers, but the City of Boston is appealing this decision.

“These issues of police diversity could not be more timely,” stated Espinoza-Madrigal of the Lawyers’ Committee.  The U.S. Department of Justice, in its recent investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, found widespread concern about the lack of diversity in Ferguson, Missouri’s police department and specifically called on the city to use only “reliable and valid selection devices” to hire and promote police officers.  “Police departments in Massachusetts should be ahead of Ferguson, not behind,” said Espinoza-Madrigal.  “Our increasingly diverse communities remain significantly underrepresented. Unfair employment practices weaken the integrity of our police departments and stand in the way of diversity.  If police departments won’t get rid of these illegal barriers voluntarily, we will continue to turn to the federal courts to compel compliance with the law.”