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State strikes deal on fire, police exams

Calls for more minority hires

The state has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit by requiring Boston, Brookline, and 18 other cities and towns to offer police and firefighter jobs to minority applicants who took civil service exams that a judge later found were discriminatory.

The state would also pay a total of up to $1.45 million in back pay.

The agreement, which will be presented to a federal judge for approval Wednesday, calls for the hiring of 66 minority candidates statewide, including 26 in Boston, who scored high on police or fire exams between 2002 and 2005, but lost out to higher-scoring white candidates.

A federal judge ruled last summer that the state's 2002 and 2004 firefighter exams discriminated against blacks and Hispanics and was about to hold a trial to consider additional claims resulting from arguments that the 2003 and 2005 police exams were also unfair to members of minority groups.

Harold L. Lichten, a lawyer who filed the class-action suit against the state and the city of Lynn on behalf of four black firefighter applicants, said they agreed to settle because the state came up with a new "state of the art" exam last year that appears to be much fairer to minorities.

"Our goal was to secure an exam that actually predicts job performance . . . so minorities would have a reasonable shot of doing as well [as white applicants] on the exam, so there wouldn't be resegregation of departments," Lichten said.

Attorney General Martha Coakley's office, which is defending the state, released a statement yesterday that read: "Rather than engage in an extensive appeal process, we felt it was in the best interests of the Commonwealth and all parties involved to adopt the new exam and the new scoring mechanism, which is expected to eliminate any claim of disparate impact and to increase minority hiring."

Last August, US District Judge Patti B. Saris found that the prior tests continued to rank applicants based on how well they scored on written exams that test cognitive ability, even though such tests were found discriminatory in the early 1970s and led to decades of court-ordered affirmative action policies in Lynn, Boston, and other cities.

She found that many questions on the exam had nothing to do with firefighting and that the state didn't administer a strength test or take into account other factors, including life experience and personality

One of the men who brought the suit, Jared Thomas, 24, a lifelong Lynn resident, who scored a 92 on the 2004 exam, said that he has wanted to be a firefighter since he took a fourth-grade field trip to a fire station and that he hopes he will get a job with the Lynn Fire Department as a result of the settlement.

"I want people to know we are probably some of the best candidates for this job and we are not just trying to get the job the easy way," said Thomas, who ran track and played football in high school and works out at the gym daily. He's currently working as a roofer, lugging 60-pound packages of shingles up ladders.

Under the proposal, both sides have come up with a list of candidates who would have been hired if the tests had not been discriminatory. Candidates, who will still have to pass physicals and background checks, will be eligible for up to $18,750 each in back pay.

The agreement also says that another 41 minority applicants who were eventually hired as police and firefighters in various communities would have been hired sooner if the tests weren't discriminatory and could recoup up to $13,415 each in back pay.

The settlement agreement credits the Boston Police Department with blunting the discriminatory impact of the 2003 and 2005 tests by hiring police officers who spoke Spanish or Creole. As a result, the settlement said both sides reached an agreement requiring Boston to hire 19 black officers over the next three years. None are eligible for back pay.

"We work really hard to increase diversity," said Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, citing a recent recruiting drive and outreach to minority groups. Currently, 35 percent of the department's officers are minority members.

Paul Dietl, acting chief human resources officer for the state, said the new police and fire exams include questions about experience and temperament.

One of the other men who filed suit -- Jacob Bradley, 27, an occupational therapist -- scored a 94 on the 2004 exam and was hired off the civil service list by the Lynn Fire Department last October.

"I'm glad we evoked some change in the testing procedures," said Bradley, who says he is happy to be working as a firefighter. "It's going to give more people an opportunity to be considered for the job and take into account more characteristics of a whole person and their abilities, as opposed to what they can score on a test."

Under the agreement, the state also agrees to pay $310,000 in legal fees to Lichten's firm; another $350,000 for the firm's out-of-pocket expenses, including fees to experts; and $40,000 in legal fees and costs to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which intervened in the case on behalf of the NAACP and the Boston Society of Vulcans.

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