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Town plans to overhaul police hiring by leaving state civil service system

The Brookline Public Safety Building. Photo by Zoe Zekos
March 19, 2024

The town of Brookline and its police union have agreed on a new contract that, if finalized, would upend a century-old system for how the department hires officers by removing Brookline police from the state’s civil service system.

Town and police department leaders say doing so will give them more flexibility to fill vacancies, which have recently strained the department’s ability to provide public safety services. Leaving civil service would enable the department to schedule more frequent exams and add leeway to residence requirements.

If the move gets approval from the union, Town Meeting and state legislature, Brookline would join a growing number of police departments across the state that have opted out of the civil service system. According to The Boston Globe. 37 departments have left the statewide system in the last decade, and others, including the city of Boston, are considering doing so.

“I’m very excited about the possibility of coming out of civil service,” said Chief of Police Jennifer Paster in an interview with Brookline.News. “It will remove one huge barrier for us.”

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Brookline has been in the civil service system since the 1890s, according to Town Administrator Charles Carey. It was originally established to ensure that municipal workers were hired on merit, and not as political favors.

In recent years, however, many municipal leaders dealing with a shortage of police officers have come to see it as an impediment to hiring.

Brookline currently has 18 police officer vacancies, leading to cutbacks in the work of the detective and community service divisions, among others, Paster said. Being part of the civil service system is part of the reason it’s been so difficult to hire officers, she said.

The statewide exam only occurs once a year, and the full process of studying for and taking the exam, then waiting for scores to come back, can take multiple years, Paster said.

“Nobody can sit around and wait two or three years for a job,” she said. “So we lose them either entirely from the field or we lose them to other departments who are non-civil service that can scoop them up.”

Paster said that if Brookline leaves civil service, the town would develop its own exam, which it could offer more frequently. Norwood’s police department, she said, recently departed from civil service and now holds an exam four times a year.

“We’ll work with experts and talk to other chiefs, and choose a vendor from the companies that are out there doing it,” Paster said. The town would also have to develop its own exams for officers seeking promotions, which are also currently administered by the civil service.

Civil service also includes a residency preference that gives the advantage to officers who have lived in the town in which they want to work for at least a year before taking the exam. Given the high cost of living in Brookline, removing that preference would also give the department more flexibility, Paster said.

The leadership of the police union agreed to the change in negotiations with the department and town, but the four-year contract has not yet been ratified by union membership.

Detective Michael Keaveney, the union president, declined to comment on details of the contract until it’s ratified.

In general, he said, the change would be a “big adjustment.”

“We don’t know anything other than civil service,” Keaveney said.

In other changes, the contract would increase police officer wages 2% in 2024 and 2025, and 1.5% in 2026. It would also add pay bumps for officers in their 6th and 8th years, make minor changes to night shift pay, and add Juneteenth as a recognized holiday.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that after leaving civil service, the Brookline Police Department would require officers to live in Brookline. That is not the case.