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Change on civil service exam riles officers

Scores for those seeking promotions now grouped; chiefs have more leeway

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 21, 2009
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Promotions always rankle those who are passed over. But at least in police departments, spurned officers have long been reassured by the civil service system, which makes exam scores the basis for promotions and forces chiefs to explain why they elevated someone to captain or lieutenant over someone with a better score.

No more. The state has quietly rolled back that provision, and instead it now groups officers together by the range they scored (for instance, 93 to 100), which will let supervisors select from a pool of candidates instead of simply going down the list and promoting the highest scorers.

The change will give supervisors the long-sought ability to use a broader range of criteria to choose their commanders. But the shift, which was made with no public hearing or apparent feedback from unions, has touched off raw emotions among police officers, who spend months, sometimes years, cramming for the exams, and hundreds of dollars on test fees, classes, and books.

Detractors say it will only breed more cynicism about how fellow officers are promoted. And it could put chiefs in the awkward position of having to defend themselves against accusations of cronyism in their departments.

"It seems to go contrary to the foundation of what civil service is all about: the ability to eliminate political pressures both internally and externally," said James Machado, a Fall River sergeant and executive director of the Massachusetts Police Association, which represents officers across the state. "Some people have said, 'I don't fit in with the administration. This was my only chance. . . . Now I feel that regardless of my grade I have little or no chance of being promoted.' "

But police chiefs say the change gives them more flexibility to include qualities such as work ethic, attendance, and leadership skills in their decisions. A consultant hired by the state Human Resources Division, which administers the tests, recommended the change on the basis that differences of a few points between candidates do not reliably predict who will perform the job better.

"It's no different than the private sec tor," said A. Wayne Sampson, a retired Shrewsbury chief and executive director of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association. "There are a lot more factors involved in picking part of your command staff than just the ranking of the test."

The move could also help chiefs diversify their command staff. Over the years, many department leaders have complained that the civil service exam was a stumbling block for minorities trying to move up.

"If [a minority candidate] were somewhere in the middle and someone else was slightly ahead of them, that's the factor you could use," said Brockton Police Chief William Conlon, whose department has no minorities in supervisor positions. "The department does need diversity."

But he said the change will cause friction with the rank and file if he and the union do not negotiate other criteria for promoting officers, such as a formal interview process.

Most public sector employees are required to take a civil service exam to win a job or promotion, but the tests have the highest profile in public safety jobs, where the competition for advancement is the fiercest.

The change affects 1,700 police officers who took the promotional exam for captain, lieutenant, and sergeant last October. The so-called banded scores were released last week, with officers divided into groups based on the range they scored in. Now, union officials say their members are livid that the agency said nothing about the change until months after officers took the exam.

The Massachusetts Coalition of Police and the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association filed an appeal Wednesday with the Civil Service Commission, arguing that state law dictates the state give notice of the change and allow time for a public hearing.

An Arlington lawyer, John Sofis Scheft, also filed a petition with the commission, asking for an investigation and charging that the change was not made in a transparent or even legal way. Many officers are also irate that the agency changed the passing grade for all three positions.

"You don't change the rules in the middle of the game," said Scheft, who has trained Boston police officers for promotional exams. "This is a monumental change in the civil service system. Do you think they could have had a public hearing?"

But Paul Dietl, the state's chief human resources officer, said the agency is not required to hold a public hearing for banding scores. He said that since 2006, the agency has been banding test scores for entry exams into the fire and police departments, and this is the first promotional exam administered since the agency began banding scores.

"It's not like this was done in the dead of night and no one saw the possibility of this coming," he said. "We've committed ourselves to test banding . . . We are in the business of trying to craft the very best testing instruments and selection instruments to get the very best people in public safety jobs."

Thomas Nee, president of the Boston patrolmen's union, agreed that scores should not be the only criteria, but said the way the change was implemented does not ensure fairness.

"It's got to be clear and free of partisan politics and nepotism," Nee said. "Those types of safeguards have to be built into a banding process and we didn't even get to that point."

Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis agreed.

"I think the concept of banding . . . is a step in the right direction," he said. "However, and this is a big however, the way that it's happening is going to present serious problems for us, because of the suspicion that comes about when people view a system that they perceive as fair becoming more subjective."

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

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