After discrimination case ruling, Mass. cancels upcoming fire civil-service exam
The state also announced that it will not score the September police promotional exam
By Sean Philip Cotter
BOSTON — The state has canceled the upcoming fire civil-service promotional exam and “will not score” the recent statewide exam for police in light of a recent Boston-based court case.
“Our members had the rug pulled out from underneath them,” Boston fire union International Association of Fire Fighters Local 718 head Sam Dillon told the Herald after, he said, some of his members were notified on Wednesday.
The court case in question is Tatum et al v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a suit from several Black or Hispanic police officers filed back in 2009 as they claimed that the civil-service sergeants’ promotional exam disadvantaged minority test takers, leading to lower scores and therefore delayed or missed promotions through the centralized and highly regimented process used by many police and fire departments.
A Suffolk Superior judge heard the matter in a bench trial this summer — and ruled on it two weeks ago, when Judge Douglas Wilkins issued a blistering finding against the state Human Resources Division.
“The evidence is very clear. It defeats any justification for HRD’s heavy reliance upon biased exams to identify the best candidates for promotion to sergeant,” the judge wrote. “Moreover, HRD knew of clearly superior assessment methods but continued to use the same, unnecessarily discriminatory format anyway. The massive amount of evidence proving the known and unjustified disparate impact of HRD’s format leaves no doubt in this court’s mind that the Commonwealth has interfered with the plaintiffs’ rights to consideration for promotion to police sergeant without bias due to race or national origin.”
Civil-service promotional exams generally happen once a year, and one — already delayed to unrelated issues — for Boston firefighters to become district chiefs was scheduled to happen in two weeks.
In response to questions about this, the state acknowledged that it had canceled that firefighters exam and “will not score” the police promotional exam from September used statewide. The Baker administration said that this does not affect entry exams, and that HRD is reviewing the court decision and “exploring all options moving forward and will work with appointing authorities around short-term options for departmental staffing needs.”
According to an email obtained by the Herald from state Human Resources Division to a Boston firefighter getting ready to sit for that assessment, “After careful consideration, in light of the court decision, HRD has decided it needs to cancel the firefighter promotional examination scheduled for November 19, 2022 while it further evaluates the decision and determines next steps.”
HRD continued, “We are sorry for this development and we will be working with your appointing authority in the coming weeks as more information becomes available.”
Dillon said he sees this as an attempt to move away from using civil service, which the union likes because of the protections it affords.
“The state civil service commission needs to go ahead with these exams,” Dillon said, noting that the court case is about cop tests, which are different than those for jakes. “We don’t see the relation between the police case and firefighter promotional exams because there isn’t one.”
Rich MacKinnon of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts statewide union said his organization has brought on an attorney to file an emergency order to “investigate this matter” — specifically why the police case meant that firefighter exams have to stop.
He told the Herald that he received notice on Wednesday, too, and noted that studying for a civil service exam is oven a long, tedious process.
“It’s going to cause issues in public safety,” he said of the lack of promotions.
He said the state suggested departments can forgo civil service and instead go to “sole assessment centers” for promotions, but he, like Dillon, sought to avoid that and told his 80-plus locals that use civil service to stick with it.
Fire department promotions to lieutenant and captain are coming up on Feb. 3, a fact that both Dillon and MacKinnon brought up as a problem if that’s also bumped.
As for the court case, this summer’s bench trial was to determine liability, and a second phase of the trial to see what the judge will order as a consequence of this new ruling is slated for March 20.