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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Boston Sued for Records About Drug Tests

BOSTON (CN) - The Boston Police Department spent over a year dodging public records requests from a pro bono legal services group seeking drug-test records, the group claims in court.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice wants records about the hair drug test used to screen officers, which has been challenged for being less reliable when testing African-American hair.

The committee is also seeking records that detail the racial makeup of BPD's recruiting class at its training academy, according to a lawsuit it filed last week against the City of Boston, the Boston Police Department (BPD) and Police Commissioner Williams Evans.

Specifically, the committee requested documentation of the number of officers tested for drug use, divided by race, and divided by the method of testing - either by hair, since 2007, or urinalysis, since 1998. Of those, the organization also requested the number of officers who tested positive for cocaine use.

The first records request was made on Dec. 5, 2014, and the second request was made Dec. 22, 2015. The committee's lawsuit alleges BPD has not responded to either request.

"The requests in question seek documents that are critical to ascertaining the racial impact of BPD employment practices," the Jan. 20 complaint states. "BPD's use of this test is highly controversial, particularly in light of questions regarding the test's reliability in testing African-American hair. Records concerning BPD's use of this test, and its impact on African-American officers, are critical public documents that should not be shielded from public view."

The records request was made in the wake of a 2014 decision from the First Circuit in favor of 10 black officers who sued BPD for its use of hair drug testing, claiming the increased amount of melanin in African-American hair makes it more likely to test positive for cocaine use.

"To be accountable to the community, the Boston Police Department must be transparent," Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee, said. "Diversity and community representation in the police force is a critical issue, and the public has a right to know the impact of BPD's employment practices on blacks, Latinos, and other minority groups."

The Lawyers' Committee cited recent court decisions over racial discrimination as context for their records request, including last fall's federal decision against BPD for discriminatory lieutenants exams and last month's Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination finding that BPD disciplines minorities at its training academy more harshly than white recruits.

"Recent court and agency decisions have demonstrated that BPD's employment practices are neither fair nor even-handed," Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of the Lawyers' Committee, said in a statement. "Particularly in light of these recent rulings, it is critical that BPD not be allowed to shield public records on its employment practices from public scrutiny."

The committee seeks a court order requiring the police department to release the documents.

BPD media relations officer Stephen McNulty declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond acknowledging that the department's legal advisor was reviewing it. McNulty also said that there were no plans to implement an alternate drug test in place of testing hair.

David Godkin of Birnbaum & Godkin partnered with the Lawyers' Committee in filing its lawsuit against BPD.

The committee is a nonprofit organization that provides pro bono legal representation to victims of race or national origin discrimination, according to its website.

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