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Panel dismisses complaints on police promotion

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 14, 2009
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The state Civil Service Commission has dismissed complaints by several police unions that the state unlawfully overhauled a system that forces supervisors to promote officers based on their scores on the civil service exam.

The commission voted 3-2 Thursday not to investigate complaints that officials at the Human Resources Division violated state law when they decided to group officers together by the range in which they scored, for example, 93 to 100.

The change, which state officials announced to departments in February, gives police supervisors a much larger pool of candidates to choose from. Chiefs have argued that they need leeway to consider a broader range of criteria when choosing commanders, like leadership skills and work ethic. Many department supervisors have also complained that the civil service exam was an obstacle for minority-group members trying to move up.

"Frequently, reliance on test scores alone does not result in selection of the most able candidate," wrote commission chairman Christopher Bowman.

The commission also rejected the unions' argument that the state was required by law to hold public hearings on the change, which will be used to assess the score of the roughly 1,700 officers who took the exam for sergeant, captain, and lieutenant five months ago.

Thomas Nee - president of the Boston Police Patrolman's Association, which was one of the complainants - vowed to appeal to superior court.

Promoting officers could now become "too subjective," Nee said.

The change "would give enormous discretion to appointing authorities," said Alan Shapiro, the unions lawyer. "I think it would give so much discretion it probably . . . just violates the law itself."

For many rank-and-file officers, the system was a reassurance that favoritism would not play a part in police promotions. Now that reassurance could be gone, said one of the complainants, John Solis Scheft, an Arlington lawyer who has trained officers for the exam. "It's really the death of civil service."

The dissenting commissioners, Daniel M. Henderson and John E. Taylor, said the change should have been announced months before the October exam, so that officers could have chosen not to take the test.

The change, the commissioners wrote, "probably also violates the purposes behind the civil service system, including the recruiting, selecting, and advancing of employees on the basis of their relative ability, knowledge, and skills."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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