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Judge orders State Police to accept recruit who was rejected, discriminated against

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File)

A federal judge has ordered the Massachusetts State Police to admit a black recruit to the training academy after a jury found the agency had denied him entrance because of his race.

Orlando Riley, a New Bedford police officer, had asked the judge to force the department’s hand after the jury in December returned a $130,000 discrimination award.

On Friday, US District Judge Denise J. Casper agreed, ordering the State Police to put Riley in the next training class, which could begin as soon as later this year. Riley would still have to complete the 23-week training program before becoming a trooper.

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“I just want what I’ve always wanted which is a fair and equal opportunity to become a Massachusetts State Trooper just like everyone else,” Riley said in a statement.

Riley had aced the State Police entrance exam and passed health screenings but was disqualified in the interview process. His 2015 lawsuit alleged that the white trooper conducting his background investigation treated him differently than white applicants, denigrating his neighborhood and expressing disbelief that he didn’t gamble.

The ruling is a rebuke of the State Police, which fought Riley’s legal efforts, saying he was deceptive during the application process.

It’s wasn’t clear Monday whether the department would appeal the decision.

A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker referred a request for comment to the State Police.

State Police spokesman David Procopio said the department was reviewing the judge’s order and would determine its next steps in consultation with the office of Attorney General Maura Healey, which is also reviewing the ruling, a spokeswoman said.

The decision comes amid several State Police scandals and a reckoning about the lack of diversity within the ranks. In 2018, just over 5 percent of sworn personnel were black, and fewer than 6 percent were women — numbers that have decreased slightly in recent years. There are no minorities among the top ranks today.

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Procopio has said that the agency has “no tolerance for discrimination of any type” and has prioritized increasing diversity.

Riley, a longtime New Bedford officer, took the State Police written examination in 2009 and received an offer to complete the application process two years later. He completed health screenings, but said that Trooper Robert Lima, the white trooper who conducted his background investigation, treated him like a criminal suspect. Lima wrote in a report that Riley appeared timid, untruthful, and accepting of “mediocrity.”

The State Police on Monday declined to make Lima, who remains a trooper, available for an interview. Colonel Kerry A. Gilpin, the head of the State Police, had announced that Lima was going to be promoted to sergeant effective Sunday. But on Friday — the same day Judge Casper made her ruling — Gilpin said Lima’s promotion had been rescinded.

Procopio, the spokesman, said that Lima requested his promotion be rescinded because it required reassignment to a different part of the state.

Riley’s attorney, Ellen J. Messing, said Riley’s court case revealed more than the discriminatory practices of Lima. She said it showed the whole State Police background investigation system “is subjective and open to bias of many types, including racial bias.”

“It’s not designed to be fair and objective,” Messing added.

State Representative Russell E. Holmes of Mattapan, one of the state’s few black elected officials, said the recent decision is another case of “when it comes to black people, the only way we win at the State Police is when we sue.” Holmes has sought a complete overhaul of the state’s civil service process.

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Larry Ellison, of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said the police hiring process in Massachusetts “is not fair and equal, and race still plays a role in a lot of these things.”

Ellison downplayed any difficulty Riley may face upon entering the State Police academy by order of a federal judge. “I don’t think it’s any tougher than what he’s already gone through,” Ellison said.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.