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The Boston Police Department is launching new efforts aimed at increasing diversity among its ranks. Many say the plan, which includes a mentoring program and test prep classes, goes further to address the scarcity of black, Latino and Asian officers in leadership roles than anything in the past.
But police observers also worry the initiative won't last after this fall's competitive mayoral election.
About half of Boston residents are either black, Latino or Asian. The overall police force is getting closer to that figure; 34 percent of sworn officers are minorities.
However, the people calling the shots — supervisors managing the patrol officers on the street or in specialized units — do not represent the people they are policing. Of nearly 400 supervisors, only eight of them are Latinos. Blacks fill 58 of those jobs, and Asians hold two supervisor positions.
"The perception out there is that you have to know people in power in order to be considered for these positions," says Sgt. Jose Lozano, vice president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, or MAMLEO.
Lozano says he's one of only two Latino patrol supervisors in all of Boston. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of the people in power don't necessarily look like us or aren't people of color," he says.
According to Lozano, many younger minority officers don't bother taking exams used for promotion because they believe promotions are based more on connections than merit.
Minority officers aren't the only ones who feel this way, according to Tom Nolan. He left the Boston Police Department in 2004, but he still keeps close tabs on the force. He's now a criminal justice professor at Boston University. Nolan says connections to City Hall can make all of the difference.
Just look at the man taking over as second-in-command of the police department. He used to be Mayor Thomas Menino's driver.
"This isn't something that is necessarily posted in the police station, that we have four openings in the drug control unit and anybody who wants to go there can apply for these positions," Nolan says. "It's a perception that's very real, that these positions are obtained through political influence that originates through City Hall, but is administered through police headquarters."
Not true, says Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. "I think that there is a perception issue around that," Davis says, "and I do believe that we need to be more transparent."
Davis says the Boston Police have successfully recruited more minorities to join the police force. But he agrees with critics who say there aren't enough blacks, Latinos and Asians in leadership roles, particularly at the rank of sergeant detective, lieutenant detective and captain detective.
"There's a matter of fairness, of course," Davis says. "And that's fundamental to the way you run an operation. So we want to be fair to everyone in the organization. But I think the other compelling reason is that the police department needs to establish trust with the community and, if the police department looks different than the community, it's hard to do that."
Davis says he's tried to diversify some specialty divisions, such as the homicide unit. He says that's helped the unit solve almost half its cases, up from about a quarter in recent years.
But of the 29 people in that unit, only six are black and three are Latinos.
The unit in charge of investigating gangs — a largely black, Latino and Asian phenomenon — is run by all white supervisors. The 35 patrol officers who work under them include nine black and five Latino officers. There are no Asians in the unit. The police department couldn't say what languages other than English that these officers might speak.
For about a year, a minority police association, along with advocates in the community, have been urging the mayor and Commissioner Davis to look at the issue of advancement among minority officers. Last week, Davis publicly committed to a plan to increase diversity at every level of the department.
"We've agreed to post all of the jobs in the police department. I think that's a great step to make sure everyone knows what's available," Davis says. He also plans to create a mentoring program and offer test prep classes for officers taking exams for promotion.
Some critics question the timing of the initiative, which came just weeks after the department suspended an officer for sending an e-mail message in which he likened Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to a "banana-eating jungle monkey." And it's just weeks before Mayor Menino faces what could be his toughest bid for re-election.
But Sgt. Lozano says he's not worried about that.
"I think it is the most proactive action that's been taken by a police commissioner," Lozano says. "Obviously we have to stay on top of it and make sure that the commitment is serious and persistent."
Lozano and his colleagues plan to monitor the number of blacks, Latinos and Asians in supervisor jobs.
This program aired on August 13, 2009.
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