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No resolution for hair test plaintiffs

After 15 years, fired cops await resolution

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

Soon after the Boston Police Department began in 1999 to use an annual hair test to determine whether officers had used drugs, members of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers began noticing a troubling trend: A disproportionate number of Black cops were testing positive for cocaine.

The Black officers suspected that the company that administered the test, Psychemedics, overstated its ability to distinguish between environmental contamination and evidence that test subjects had actually ingested drugs. The hair test detects minute quantities of drugs in hair taken from subject’s head and bodies to determine whether drugs have been metabolized. But because Black people’s hair tends to be more porous than that of white people, false positives were long a concern among civil rights advocates.

In 2007, seven Black officers who were fired after testing positive for cocaine use filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston.

The state’s Civil Service Commission and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court both ruled against the use of the hair test. The department stopped using the test, and the city sued Psychemedics, arguing that the firm should be held liable for damages due the officers.

Yet the city has refused to settle with the Black officers who were fired, some as far back as 2001, because of false positive results from the test.

“There are people who lost their careers, and yet the city still won’t do the right thing,” said MAMLEO president Jeffrey Lopes. “We’re talking about equity in this city. But when you look at the decisions by the city’s legal team, you have to ask, what are we really doing?”

A spokesperson for the city declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

In the first seven years the hair test was in use, 1.3% of Black officers tested positive for drug use, compared to 0.3% of white officers. During the years of the Menino administration, police commissioners were adamant about keeping the test in place, despite the advocacy of Black officers and growing questions about the efficacy of the hair test.

Federal officials in 2006 had banned the use of hair tests on federal employees over concerns that the test produced a disproportionately high number of false positive results among African Americans.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs who lost their jobs with BPD two decades ago are waiting for an outcome in the protracted legal battle. Ivan Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his clients are suffering from a pattern of inaction by the city’s legal team.

“We strongly believe that the city of Boston needs to immediately address all of the racial justice and discrimination cases that the Wu administration has inherited from previous mayors,” he said. “It is critical for the Wu administration to come out in front of these cases instead of keeping them lingering in court. A resolution of pending cases would go a long way toward ensuring that the city’s commitment to racial justice applies where it most matters.”

Boston Police, City of Boston, hair test, Mamleo, Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers