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Mass. officials ask federal court to end consent decrees governing police and fire hiring

Officers at a police graduation ceremony on June 16, 2022, with Mayor Domenic Sarno and Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood (right) looking on.
City of Springfield
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Officers at a police graduation ceremony on June 16, 2022, with Mayor Domenic Sarno and Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood (right) looking on.

A federal judge this week will consider whether to phase out decades-long hiring rules aimed at diversifying Massachusetts police and fire departments.

The Wednesday afternoon hearing before Judge Patti. B. Saris comes about 50 years after the court cases were filed that led to the rules. Through consent decrees, which have been revised in recent years, the court has directed state human resources officials to follow hiring ratios intended to prioritize Black and Latino candidates.

Only seven communities remain bound by the rules, which previously governed entry-level police and fire department hiring in more than 100 cities and towns. Departments have been released from the decree when their percentages of Black and Latino officers or firefighters reached "rough parity" with the population they serve.

The state's Human Resources Division, represented by the office of state Attorney General Maura Healey, proposed what it called a "winding down" of the rules, with cities released from the decree on a phased schedule through the end of 2024.

"It is time for the consent decrees to end, at the proposed termination dates, so that all municipalities in Massachusetts may resume hiring entry-level police officers and firefighters in accordance with state law," according to the state's April filing.

That is because, the attorney general argued, communities bound by the consent decree have either made "substantial progress" toward reaching parity or "have exhausted all reasonable efforts to do so." The filing also said the state wanted to avoid "unintended consequences" of the rules, noting the formula actually suppressed minority hiring in some departments for years before it was amended in 2016.

A spokesperson for Healey declined to comment on the case, referring questions to the Human Resources Division. A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, which includes the Human Resources Division, declined to comment beyond the court papers.

Immediate impact

The consent decrees originated from several different lawsuits in the early 1970s. A lawsuit regarding police hiring was filed by eight applicants to the Boston police — six Black and two Puerto Rican residents — who were not hired. Separate lawsuits filed by the U.S. government and the Boston chapter of the NAACP alleged discrimination in fire department hiring. The courts imposed consent decrees overhauling the hiring processes.

In determining progress toward the consent decrees' goals, the court compares the racial makeup of each police department with parity benchmarks, which were set in recent years in recognition that the qualified workforce for a job may not align with a city's overall population numbers. When the parties agree that the actual and targeted numbers have reached "rough parity," a department is released from the hiring rules.

According to both parties, that is the case now for the fire department in Springfield and police department in Brockton.

In Springfield, the court determined that 61.3% of entry-level firefighters should be Black or Latino; as of the end of 2021, the actual percentage was 60.8%. In Brockton, the parity threshold was set at 45.2% for the police department, with the actual percentage of Black and Latino officers at 45.1%.

Besides those two departments, the state (but not the plaintiffs) wants to immediately end the consent decree for two other police departments that, as of the end of 2021, were farther from the demographic goals: police departments in Worcester and Springfield.

Officials in Springfield say the police department, in the first six months of the year, has actually closed that gap with the hiring of a new cadet class, and now has a higher percentage of Black and Latino officers than is required by the court.

In addition, the state wants to release police departments in Lawrence and Chelsea from the consent decree by the end of this year. The final phase calls for the end of the hiring rules by the end of 2024 for fire departments in Lawrence, Chelsea and Holyoke, as well as police in Holyoke and Randolph.

Representatives for the plaintiffs in the consent decree case, including Lawyers for Civil Rights, oppose the state's proposal to "sunset" the rules as premature and arbitrary.

"We believe that the remaining communities governed by the consent decree are making significant, significant strides towards that goal and that the consent decree should remain in place until that goal of parity is reached," said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Springfield mayor's plan to avoid 'backslide'

One concern of the plaintiffs is that communities no longer bound by the hiring rules may see their police and fire ranks become less diverse over time. The plaintiffs allege that this "backslide" occurred in the Boston police department, which was released from the consent decree in 2004.

In Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno said he does not believe his police and fire departments will slip backwards. He said that's because all new police officers and firefighters must live in Springfield.

"So that means we're drawing from a talent pool — or you got to move into the city — that reflects the mosaic of the city of Springfield," Sarno said in an interview. "I think the better you are able to do that, the better you're able to interact ... get to know one another, get to know the cultural aspects, I think it's a win-win."

Sarno noted that the racial and ethnic diversity of the departments is represented "all the way through the rank-and-file, up to supervisors."

While the consent decree only governs entry-level hiring, Springfield has made significant progress in diversifying the higher ranks of its police department. Still, they remain much more white than the department as a whole.

As of this month, 34% of supervisors in the department identified as Black, Hispanic or Asian, compared to 58% of patrol officers, according to numbers provided to NEPM by the department.

"As supervisors retire and more minority officers become eligible to take the promotional exams, the percentage of black/Hispanic/Asian supervisors will steadily increase as it has over the past decade," police spokesperson Ryan Walsh said in an email.

Impact for Holyoke

In Holyoke, 34.1% of the city's entry-level police officers are Black or Hispanic, with a court-set parity rate of 49.8%. The percentage of Black and Hispanic officers at the fire department is 43.1%, again well below the target of 55.5%.

Under the state's proposal, Holyoke would be released from the court-ordered hiring preference for Black and Hispanic applicants at the end of 2024, regardless of whether those percentages have increased.

Mayor Joshua Garcia, who took office in November, declined to be interviewed about whether he agrees with the scheduled end of the hiring requirements. Garcia said he was not available, and sent an email comment instead.

Garcia noted Holyoke has made significant progress toward diversifying its police and fire departments under the consent decree, which he noted was put in place "nearly a decade before [Garcia] was born."

Acknowledging the entry-level numbers contained in court filings, Garcia added that Hispanic supervisors make up an increasing share of the upper ranks of the departments.

"[A] few months ago, the city appointed its first Hispanic captain in the Fire Department. This tells me we are taking these departments in the direction they need to go in but we still have so much more work to do," Garcia wrote. "We will continue to endeavor to have our departments reflect the population they serve — a diverse and inclusive community who by the way recently elected their first Hispanic mayor."

In his email, Garcia did not take a position on the proposal to release Holyoke from the consent decree. Asked for clarity in a follow-up question, the mayor did not respond.

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Sam has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Radio since 2013.