Boston pays $2.6 million to settle with officers over discriminatory drug tests

A Boston Police station. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A Boston Police station. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Boston has paid $2.6 million to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit alleging a drug test used on police officers disproportionately produced false positives for Black individuals, according to the Lawyers for Civil Rights, who represented the plaintiffs.

The settlement money will be split among four plaintiffs — three Black officers and a cadet, who were fired or faced discipline as a result of the hair testing. The Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers also was a plaintiff in the case.

The test, which used hair follicles to test for drug ingestion, was unable to accurately determine if drug particles in hair were the result of drug use or of external contamination, according to experts and previous court findings. Experts also testified that Black hair texture and hair care products were more likely to result in a false positives, according to a press release by the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Boston stop using these tests in 2021, but that was over decade and a half after officers first sued the city in 2005, claiming its hair test is discriminatory. The city and the company that performed testing for Boston police rejected any suggestion that the tests are racially biased.

The case was twice considered by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014 and 2016, with both finding the test disproportionately produced false positives for Black officers and that there were other, more reliable test options. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts additionally ruled in 2019 that the tests were unreliable.

“The city for years and years and years, dug in and refused to make things right. Even when the writing was on the wall, and they had faced numerous court decisions going against them,” Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. The group, along with law firm WilmerHale, represented the police officers pro bono.

Sellstrom said he was "pleased" that the case was closed after years of litigation and multiple court cases. He stressed the harmful impact that the false positive tests had on officers.

"You can imagine what effect that would have to be falsely labeled in this way, and a number of officers were terminated as a result. Many had to leave the field entirely, and their dreams of being a law enforcement officer were shattered," said Sellstrom. "It totally upended our clients lives and in the process also deprived the residents of Boston from having exemplary police officers on the force.

The litigation began under Mayor Tom Menino and continued through Mayor Marty Walsh's two terms in office. Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement that the settlement "marks the end to an important process to guarantee that every officer is treated fairly."

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

This article was originally published on November 16, 2023.


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