Town Meeting members reject civil service exemptions for upcoming police captains

Jun 7, 2017

Town Meeting voters rejected a proposal that would have changed the police department's hiring method.

The police department has proposed to eliminate the civil service exam for upcoming captains in what officials describe as an attempt to create a more cohesive management team and avoid a hiring hiatus. However, voters opposed the measure, saying that approving it would allow for politically-influenced hires instead of those based on merit.

The civil service exam is a state test given to promotion candidates. The test is given every other year, but there must be four applicants for the test to be administered. Following the exam, candidates are ranked based on their scores, and the town must hire and/or promote in that order unless it has a reason for bypass.

However, the police department must open the exam to include subordinate rankings when there are not enough interested parties. For example, the captain's exam was first opened in 2015 to lieutenants, but there were not enough participants to administer the exam. In 2016, the exam was opened to lieutenants and sergeants, with still not enough interested parties.

Now that Town Meeting members have opposed surpassing the exam for the position, the exam will again be opened this fall, but this time to include patrolmen with at least one year of experience with the department.

Acting Chief Brian Levesque said that civil service ranks quality test-takers ahead of experienced leaders, but Town Meeting members rebutted that there is already a structure in place that keeps first year officers out of the captain’s position. An assessment board would look at the candidate’s educational status, ranking, and experience to determine if he or she is qualified for the position.

“Civil service can be complicated, but it’s a true, fair way of keeping politics out of the department,” said Town Meeting member David Faria. Faria admitted that he was in favor of removing the chief position out civil service several years ago so that the department could attract talent statewide.

Finance Committee member David Tatelbaum disagreed. “I personally trust [Chief Bob Szala’s] 32 years of experience,” he said.

Select Board Chair Frank Gracie opted for a happy medium. Remove the captain from civil service and use the assessment to find a qualified candidate, he said, adding that spans without a captain result in provisional appointments.

“I don’t like provisional appointments because it’s not the right way to do it,” said Gracie.

The police department is contractually obligated to do assessments for lieutenant and sergeant positions, Levesque said. He added that the department has not done one before, but will do the first one for a sergeant this summer.

Additionally, Levesque said that eliminating the captain from the civil service exam would have allowed for a stronger administration, which is typically a three-person unit including the chief, the deputy chief, and a captain. The chief and deputy chief positions are exempt from the civil service exams.

“Town Meeting made a decision. It is now my job to accommodate their choice. We will be going forward with offering the captain's test this fall under civil service provisions,” said Levesque.

Department promotions, hirings, and firings are all made by the Select Board. The police chief is responsible for making recommendations to the board.