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Boston Police Promotion Exam Deemed Biased

BOSTON (CN) - Though he took pains to emphasize the lack of conscious racial prejudice in the case, a federal judge found Monday that a multiple-choice exam gave Boston's white police officers an edge in making lieutenant.

"This is a profoundly important case, one that evokes the finest of our nation's aspirations to give everyone equal opportunity and a fair shot," the 82-page opinion states.

After holding a 10-day bench trial, U.S. District Judge William Young found Monday that the Boston Police "Department's lieutenant-selection process - ranking candidates for promotion based on their scores on an exam administered in 2008 - had a racially disparate impact and was not sufficiently job-related to survive Title VII scrutiny."

In 2008, 91 sergeants took the lieutenant promotion test. Of them, 65 were white, 25 were black and 1 was Hispanic. The passing rate for white officers was 94 percent, while the passing for minorities was 69 percent.

Despite the discrepancies in the passing rates, Young said that those numbers alone were insufficient to determine whether or not discrimination took place, so the question before the court was how to assess the promotion process for bias.

While BPD argued that promotion rates should be the sole determining factor, the plaintiffs led by Bruce Smith said the court must also consider passing rates, average exam scores and delays in promotion.

Citing the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case Connecticut v. Teal, Judge Young sided with the plaintiffs, saying Boston's "argument that promotion rates are the only relevant factor is a 'bottom line' defense which the Supreme Court has rejected."

Looking at the test as a valid means of predicting job performance, Young found the exam inadequate for its lack of analysis and its failure to encompass all of the skills that the lieutenant job requires.

Though the test weighted knowledge more heavily than other important components to being an effective lieutenant, Judge Young said "job knowledge is only a limited part of the job analyses for the role of lieutenant."

Crediting testimony from the officers' expert witnesss, Joel Peter Wiesen, the judge agreed "that the 2008 exam skipped over critical skills and abilities, including interpersonal skills, presentation skills, reasoning and judgment skills, oral communication skills, analytical skills, ability to give constructive criticism, ability to speak in front of groups, ability to counsel subordinates, ability to counsel and comfort families of victims, and ability to make sound decisions quickly."

As for relief, the parties should try and agree upon an adequate remedy, the court said. If they are unable to do so, the plaintiffs will submit their proposal and the defendants will have 30 days to respond.

Lt. Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for BPD, said the department is still reviewing the decision. BPD has not yet decided whether to appeal, nor has it determined what tests to use in the next round of promotions, McCarthy added.

After the lawsuit was filed against the city in 2012, BPD contracted an outside vendor to develop the promotion tests for 2014, McCarthy said.

"The new exam was designed to assess a candidate's experience, judgment, honesty and work ethic in addition to basic knowledge of the law, police procedures and department rules and regulations," McCarthy said. "It included a writing sample, an evaluation of the officer's ability to cope with job situations and an oral exam conducted by experts from outside the department. Work experience and education factored in as part of the final score."

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