Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis decried the state’s reliance on civil service exams for police hiring and aggressively defended his record on diversity Thursday, trying to defuse an issue that took center stage in the Boston mayor’s race this week.
Davis repeatedly pointed to the diversity of his handpicked command staff and the $2 million he set aside to administer a revised civil service test as evidence of his commitment to a racially diverse police force. The original test, which relies strictly on multiple-choice answers and does not take into account leadership skills, has long been criticized for hampering efforts to diversify police ranks.
“When are the mayor and I going to get some credit for the work we’ve done?” Davis asked in a Globe interview.
The department and Davis, who has been at its helm since 2006, came under fire from the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers earlier this week, with the group pledging to campaign against mayoral candidates who would retain Davis as commissioner. In the wake of the Marathon bombings, when Davis emerged as a national figure, at least six of the 12 candidates have pledged to keep Davis on if elected to lead the city.
In making its threat, the minority officer group outlined a list of grievances, including a recent round of promotions that initially included no minority officers, and the fact that there are currently no minority officers serving as district captains.
But Davis said he has worked hard to diversify the police force and stressed that his hands are tied by the state’s civil service exam requirement, which bases hiring and promotion decisions on who earns the highest scores on the state-administered test.
Davis boasts that he has the most racially diverse command staff in department history. Of the 19 chiefs, superintendents, and deputy superintendents who make up the force, eight are minorities and three are women, according to figures provided by the department. Unlike other hiring decisions, these appointments are not dictated by civil service scores.
“If I had unfettered ability to promote people myself, our police force would look much more like the city in terms of diversity,” Davis said.
Statistics provided by the department starkly outline the lack of diversity within lower ranks. All 21 of the department’s district captains and temporary captains are white men, as are 42 of the 48 lieutenants, 23 of 25 lieutenant detectives, and 145 of 177 sergeants. White men also make up a majority of sergeant detectives, detectives, and patrol officers.
Davis said he has been waiting for more than two years for a ruling in a federal court case filed by 44 minority patrol officers who allege the civil service test is discriminatory. Because of the delay in the ruling, the Boston Police Department has been reluctant to issue promotions based on the exam, in case it is deemed discriminatory.
In an attempt to work around the civil service test, Davis and Mayor Thomas M. Menino devoted more than $2 million earlier this year to crafting a new test to be administered by the city that would factor in interviews and other components. The local test, which the city is in the process of developing, must be approved by the state before it can be administered.
Davis is not alone in disparaging the exam system, which was installed more than 100 years ago to combat favoritism in the promotion process.
“This system where 95 percent of the decision is based on the test score is not something that any CEO would want to live by,” said Bill Walczak, a mayoral candidate and former executive director of the Codman Square Health Center. On Thursday, Walczak sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick requesting a review of the civil service test requirement.
But as Davis and others target the exam, critics say the commissioner has not exercised what little power he has to promote enough minorities.
The minority officer group has seized on a round of promotions handed out last week in which five white officers were promoted, despite the fact that nine minority officers who earned the same score on the exam were not, a decision Davis defended. Hours later, he promoted two minority officers.
“I’m not going to promote every single time based on race, which is what they want me to do,” Davis said. “I’m going to pick the best people for the positions.”
Still, several of the mayoral candidates said the initial promotions should have included officers of color.
“The whole reason why this conversation came about is because that was a missed opportunity,” said Michael P. Ross, who leads the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
The key, said many of the mayoral candidates, is recruiting and educating enough minority candidates to take the exam in the first place, so they are entered into the pipeline.
“You can’t just put some posters up across the city and expect that African-Americans and Latinos and Asians will gravitate to the exam,” said Daniel F. Conley, Suffolk district attorney and mayoral candidate. “We need to really emphasize recruitment and attract the largest pool possible.”
Davis stressed that recruitment of a diverse group of test takers has been a priority. He said that 1,040 of the 2,574 people who took a civil service exam administered earlier this year were minorities, more than double the number of minorities who did so last year.
Even with those increases, many mayoral hopefuls said there is more the city and Police Department can do to proactively recruit minorities.
State Representative Martin J. Walsh cited a recruitment program he orchestrated to help bring women and minorities into construction jobs and said he pledged to explore a similar recruitment program for the Police Department. He added he would explore expanding police staffing to allow for more minority hires.
Other candidates, including Ross and Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, vowed to revive the Police Cadet Program, a training program that ended several years ago due to budget cuts.
The program, which enrolled 18- to 24-year-olds, freed sworn officers for more critical calls and provided a pool of experienced applicants who could be hired without having to take the civil service exam.
Former Boston police officer Charles Clemons, the mayoral candidate who has been the most vocal critic of Davis, said the next mayor needs to immediately promote a district commander of color.
Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo did not provide a specific diversity plan, but said he would expect voters to hold him personally accountable for diversity on the police force. Davis said he shares that goal.
“The main criticism — that the police force needs to be more diverse — is valid,” Davis said. “But I challenge them to find someone in Boston who has been doing more on this than the mayor and I.”
Wesley Lowery can be reached at Wesley.Lowery@globe.com.