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Baltimore County police exam that prompted discrimination lawsuit is similar to tests used by other agencies

Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt stands next to Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. during the posting of colors Patriot Plaza in Towson before she is sworn in. She is the first woman to hold this position in Baltimore County.
Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa R. Hyatt stands next to Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. during the posting of colors Patriot Plaza in Towson before she is sworn in. She is the first woman to hold this position in Baltimore County. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Use of police officer screening exams such as the one targeted in a federal lawsuit against Baltimore County is common among police departments in the Baltimore area, with most agencies requiring applicants to take a written test. Departments say it’s one piece to help determine if a potential recruit will be a good fit.

But most police and sheriff departments — including Baltimore City, Harford, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Howard counties — use tests from third-party vendors. Baltimore County created its own test.

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And that exam is the focus of the lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice filed Tuesday against the county in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The Justice Department alleges that the county’s written test for police officer recruits is discriminatory.

African American applicants failed the test at a greater rate than white applicants, according to the lawsuit, resulting in fewer African Americans being hired as police officers. The suit did not include the pass rates, but said the difference was “statistically significant.”

The county has used at least three different versions of the exam over the past six years, according to the Justice Department suit. And each version was created by the county’s Office of Human Resources.

Copies of two discontinued Baltimore County exams obtained by The Sun show they tested a variety of skills, including: observation and memory; reading, by describing a Maryland law and asking questions about it; grammar and capitalization; and logic, by asking recruits to order a series of events.

The Justice Department suit alleges the subject matter is not related to the job of being a police officer or police cadet, a job that can lead to becoming an officer. The Justice Department declined to answer any questions about the lawsuit, including how and when investigators first became interested in Baltimore County’s exam.

Police officials have declined to comment, referring inquiries to the county executive’s office. County spokesman T.J. Smith said officials learned about the lawsuit Tuesday. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he’s committed to having a department that reflects the county population, creating two positions focused on improving diversity in county and police department hiring.

Olszewski reiterated Wednesday that the police department discontinued the test. Smith said that happened earlier this year, but did not say when.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former New York police officer and district attorney, said police exams should be scrutinized as departments across the country face challenges recruiting police officers.

“This whole area of testing and entrance exams, backgrounds — all that stuff — should be under a microscope, particularly if there’s a disparate impact on minority people,” O’Donnell said.

Baltimore County’s test shares similarities with a New York Police Department exam. The NYPD in the 1980s faced a series of civil-rights lawsuits, filed by the federal government and minority groups within the police department, that alleged an exam for promotion to sergeant discriminated against minorities, O’Donnell said. That test was discontinued, he said.

Many departments use written exams as a “preliminary device” to narrow the field of candidates. O’Donnell said he’s always had doubts about the exams because some eliminated applicants who are qualified, but may come from poorly performing schools.

“The criticism of these exams traditionally is they’re sort of just obstacle courses that don’t necessarily yield you the very best people,” O’Donnell said.

The police department is still recruiting new officers, Smith said. The county’s roughly 1,910 officers are 80% white, 14.7% black, 2.4% Hispanic or Latino, and 2.1% Asian, Smith said. Baltimore County’s roughly 828,000 residents are 57% white, 30% black, 6% Asian and 6% Hispanic or Latino, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.

Baltimore County police applicants have to successfully complete an online application, written exam, physical agility test, background check, and medical and physical examination to be hired, according to the county government’s website. Smith didn’t say whether the exam mentioned online was a new test or a reference to the discontinued exam.

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The county’s exam had five sections: observation and note taking, reading comprehension, sequencing and logical order, grammar and writing, and interpretation of data. Portions of the exam resemble those from the third-party vendors that other local departments use.

In the five other jurisdictions reviewed by The Sun, all require a reading section and most have a portion requiring written responses.

Howard, Harford and Baltimore City all offer practice exams as an option to applicants. They also list online resources for what to expect during the test.

A comparison of those practice exams and Baltimore County’s old test found similarities and differences.

All four exams require applicants to analyze a police report after receiving instruction about what is typically included. After reading a prompt, test takers are required to determine if the proper date is listed on the report or if the case number is correct.

Baltimore City police officials said their testing, conducted through the National Testing Network, contains a “video based human relations" portion. While the discontinued Baltimore County test did not have video, it did ask applicants to analyze a photograph for three minutes before being asked to recall specific details.

Similar to Baltimore County, Harford requires applicants to score at least 70% on the exam to advance. The city requires an overall passing score but has pass/fail elements while Anne Arundel said their test is entirely pass/fail.

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