Call for audit of city’s employment processes draws a strong response

Larry Ellison, past president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, offered a tough critique of BPD promotions and hiring.
Screenshot/City of Boston

Councillor Julia Mejia

A group of elected officials of color, union advocates, and civil rights attorneys rallied beside City Councillor Julia Mejia on May 29 in calling for an audit of the city’s hiring, firing, disciplinary, and promotional processes – noting that while gains in employment have been made, the numbers at the top still aren’t reflective of the city’s demographics.

Later in the day, Mayor Wu’s office pushed back on the narrative presented at the press conference and said the administration has removed barriers to diverse hiring that have been in place for generations. However, the mayor did not commit to conducting the requested audit.

“Under [my] leadership, the City workforce at every level—from the Cabinet to frontline staff—is the most diverse in the City’s history,” Wu said in a statement. “We continually work to set and exceed high standards for excellence in delivering City services by putting the people who know our communities best around every table. There is more work ahead, and we will accelerate these strides in the years ahead, already having created new pipelines into public safety jobs, transportation, early education, climate jobs, and public works, as well as partnerships to ensure key sectors in the private sector are creating opportunities for Boston’s community members as well.”

The press conference outside the Council Chambers followed a hearing that Mejia called for regarding information from all city departments – including police and fire. Using information taken from the city’s employee database via its data dashboard system, Mejia said the record showed that white employees make up 57.5 percent of the total municipal workforce and 53 percent of the top earners across the board.

“This is a call to action for our city departments,” she said, “including the Boston Police Department, the Boston Fire Department, the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Public Library to give equal opportunity and stop discriminatory practices that prevent employees of color from moving on up,” said Mejia.

Specifically, she noted that the work forces at Boston Public Libraries (BPL), the Office of Housing, the Public Works Department, and the Office of the Environment were more than 40 percent people of color, but they only held 12 to 30 percent of leadership positions.

In the Office of Historic Preservation, and the Law Department, only 7-21 percent of the workforce were people of color. “That is atrocious,” she said.

The Mayor’s Office cited current recruitment efforts, including new hiring strategies such as “Hire Days,” where qualified candidates can be hired on the spot, or on a fast-track. For instance, they pointed out, a Hiring Day for the hard-to-fill 9-1-1 Call Taker positions last October accounted for 11 new city employees, becoming a model for future hiring in the department.

They also noted that overall hiring of Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) has increased for new employees, going from 49 percent in 2020 to 67 percent thus far into 2024. In the police department, they said, the overall percentage of BIPOC officers has grown from 36 percent in April 2021, to 41 percent in 2024 (an increase of 158 officers).

In total, the Mayor’s Office provided statistics showing that in 2023 there had been 889 new hires, with 352 of them women, and 548 people of color. There were 341 white persons hired (38 percent).

Standing in solidarity with the “call to action” were Council President Ruthzee Louijeune, Councillor at-Large Henry Santana, state Rep. Russell Holmes, state Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley, and state Rep. Bud Williams (of Springfield). Key in pushing the process on the employee side were the Boston Society of Vulcans (Firefighters), the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO), and the Boston Teacher’s Union (BTU).

Employees of color in the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) and the Public Works Department (PWD) were some of the first, Mejia said, to note the discrepancies to her office and push for the hearing.

However, it was MAMLEO past president Larry Ellison whose words were the most cutting on Wednesday when it came to promotions and hiring within the police department as he called out Commissioner Michael Cox, who is Black.

A retired Boston Police detective, Ellison told the story of Sgt. Horatio Homer, who became the first African American Boston Police officer in 1874. He was promoted to sergeant in 1895, but “he wasn’t allowed to be out on the street and could only sit by the commissioner’s door,” said Ellison.

“Today we have a commissioner that looks like Sgt. Homer but who in my opinion is not making the right decisions when it comes to the promotional exams. If Sgt. Homer were around today, we might ask him, ‘Have we really made any progress or are we still sitting outside that [commissioner’s] door?’”

Sophia Hall, deputy litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), said they have fought the city’s hiring, firing, and promotional practices for years on end – often, she said, resulting in protracted legal costs and costly legal settlements funded by taxpayers.

“This is not a new fight; we have had the same concerns year after year,” she said.

She called for the city to stop promotional evaluations based on exams, and to stop closed-door “huddles” where people discussed whom to promote into leadership positions. She also called for the new Boston Fire Cadet program to be utilized as a pipeline and not just, as she called it, a showpiece.

“We should know the rules…so we can ask questions and engage appropriately,” she said. “If you want to do diversity as more than window dressing, you have to do the job.”

Some BTU members spoke, noting that an order under the late federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity in the school desegregation, or busing, case in the 1970s called for 25 percent of teachers hired by BPS had to be Black. The order stated that once that happened, it would be lifted. “That was 50 years ago as of June 1, 2024, and that order has not been disengaged,” said Edith Bazile.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, of Mattapan, supported the call fully, he said. “We are a majority city of color and that should be easily reflected in all that we do, and that kind of change should be systemic,” he said. “I or anyone else shouldn’t have to call the mayor or anyone and ask for the hook-up.”

Mejia said her office has filed two 17F information requests that were to be moved at the Council meeting on June 5. The requests ask for names of police officers that will be taking the promotional exams in 2024, and how much money the city has spent on lawsuits in the last five years, including fees for outside legal counsel and legal settlement costs.

“It is our duty as a City Council to guarantee that [municipal] hiring, firing, and promotional processes are free from discriminatory practices,” she concluded.

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