In a November 16 press release, it was announced the City of Boston paid $2.6 million to settle a years-long federal discrimination lawsuit alleging that a “hair test” used to identify drug use on its police force was discriminatory and scientifically flawed.

Boston eliminated the test in 2021 as part of its Movement To End Racism and has now paid damages to three Black officers and a cadet who were terminated due to test results.

The case was filed 20 years ago after Boston began using the test, which detects the presence of controlled substances in hair follicles. As experts testified, the test cannot reliably distinguish between drug particles found in hair as a result of ingestion versus external contamination. Experts also testified the texture of Black hair, as well as grooming products commonly used by Black individuals, increases the likelihood of external contamination and false positives. 

The case was twice considered by the First Circuit Court of Appeals: in 2014, when the Court agreed the hair test fell disproportionately on Black officers; and again in 2016, when the Court found evidence to show Boston had continued to use the hair test even after learning of a less discriminatory alternative. During a six-day trial held before U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock, the parties entered into mediation, culminating in the settlement announced last week.

“This settlement puts an end to a long, ugly chapter in Boston’s history,” said Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, the legal organization that has represented the Black officers. “As a result of this flawed test, our clients’ lives and careers were completely derailed. The City has finally compensated them for this grave injustice.”  

In addition to the four individual plaintiffs, the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO), which works to ensure equal rights for minority officers and to diversify law enforcement, has also been a plaintiff in the case since its inception. “The hair test not only wreaked havoc on the lives of many Black officers, it deprived Boston residents of exemplary police officers,” said Jeffrey Lopes, President of MAMLEO.

The settlement caps a string of losses for Boston related to the hair test. In 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the test “is prone to produce false positives.” As of 2019, the City had paid over $2.1 million to outside counsel attempting to defend the hair test in various court cases.

Under the settlement, the four individual plaintiffs will each receive a portion of the $2.6 million based on their individual circumstances.