It was 1982 and racial tensions caused by busing in the city were still so high that police regularly were called to South Boston High School to provide security. Leading those officers was Superintendent Martin Mulkern, a heavy-set, clean-shaven officer who loved chatting with the students he met in the high school’s halls nearly every day.
Affable and curious, he took an interest in Larry Ellison, a senior and the first black class president in South Boston High’s history. You should become a police officer, Ellison recalls Mulkern once told him. “You seem to be able to work with people.’’ It was the first time anyone had mentioned the Boston Police Department to him, says Ellison, who was inspired by Mulkern’s style and kindness. “You could tell he just really cared about people,’’ Ellison says. “He was a good role model.’’
Ellison, 49, is now a Boston police detective and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, which represents about 350 black, Latino, and Asian officers, and whose calls for more diversity in the Police Department’s upper ranks sparked debate during the recent mayoral campaign. Like Mulkern, he says, he has tried to encourage black and Hispanic teenagers in the city’s rougher neighborhoods to join the department, which is still predominantly made up of white men.
He wishes more officers working in the department today would reach out the way that Mulkern did. “This was a white man,’’ Ellison says. “But it wasn’t about race. It was about a man trying to help people.’’
It is a simple idea that many department observers say could go far in diversifying the department. “What really has to happen is a long-term strategy for the youth and encouraging them to get on board,’’ says retired Boston police Captain Genevieve King, a fierce advocate for female officers who was the first female captain detective in the city. When she retired in July 2012, she was the only female captain in the department. No women have risen to the rank since.
The promotion of officers of color within the department is as much an issue for Ellison as recruitment. For officers to reach ranks that are not appointed by the commissioner, they must score well on the civil service exam, which many argue is outdated, relies on multiple choice answers, and does not take into account leadership skills. Police chiefs and minorities
contend the exam has hampered efforts to diversify police ranks.
All 19 of the department’s captains are white men, according to the department’s most recent figures. Of its 47 lieutenants, there are 2 women, 3 black men, and 1 Asian man. And while the command staff — the deputy superintendents and superintendents appointed by the commissioner — is made up of 42 percent minority or female officers, the minority law enforcement association argues that many of them have little power over how bureaus and districts are run.
In August, the group voted “no confidence’’ in Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who left the department on Nov. 1 but not before publishing a furious missive calling the group’s actions divisive and misleading. He lamented that the group refused to give him or Mayor Thomas M. Menino any credit for allocating $2 million to administer a revised civil service test, ostensibly making it easier for minorities to be promoted.
The association has countered that even when department officials have had the chance to promote minorities, they use their discretion and don’t — most recently when a handful of black officers scored as high as several white officers who were promoted to sergeant over them.
As the debate over promotions continues, the focus has begun to turn to long-term strategies for diversifying the entire department. More than half of the department’s 2,100 officers are white men, while only 729 are black, Hispanic, or Asian. There are only 289 female officers.
During the mayoral debate, candidates talked about bringing back the cadet program — a two-year training program that gave participants preference into the police academy and tended to draw minorities from the city. “How do you recruit more minority candidates to take the test? It’s a tough question to answer,’’ says Carmelo Ayuso, a state police lieutenant and president of the Massachusetts Minority State Police Officers Association. “Trust has to be built. The kids in the neighborhood always see the police going in and arresting people and pointing out what’s wrong with the community. That has to change.’’
Recruitment strategies are not the only solution, King says. Women who enroll at the police academy often do not make it to graduation because they fail the physical exam — they cannot scale a 5-foot wall or pass the trigger-pull test, which requires them to fire a heavy .38 caliber revolver. “How many 5-foot walls do you think we’re climbing in the city of Boston?’’ says King of the test, which was not part of the physical training when she joined the academy in the 1980s. “Most women tend to be bottom heavy. I couldn’t do it.’’
As for the trigger-pull test, many women have small hands that can’t reach around the handle, says King, who noted that in the field, officers use .40 caliber pistols. “We’re never going back to revolvers,’’ King says. “Why do we even have that?’’ Such tests are required by civil service — the system by which government employees are hired and promoted — which nearly all police chiefs and commissioners agree needs to be updated.
It is urgent that police work harder to reflect a city where more than 50 percent of the residents identify their race as other than white, says Priscilla Flint, coordinator for Mothers for Justice and Equality, a Roxbury nonprofit that represents relatives of those lost to violence. “It’s a lot easier to deal with a police officer if he looks like you,’’ she says.