Baltimore County officials say the federal lawsuit alleging employment discrimination against African Americans who applied to become police officers stems from an earlier investigation that began under the Obama administration.
Federal officials have taken an interest in entry-level hiring in the police department since at least 2012, when the U.S. Justice Department asked then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration for information on minority hiring in the county police and fire departments. The county continued to provide information and last answered questions from the federal agency in 2016, county officials say.
Then the case appeared dormant for nearly three years until this spring, when the Justice Department told the county it was investigating again. The lawsuit, filed last month, is based on information the county sent to the federal government between January 2012 and August 2016, according to T.J. Smith, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
County officials learned April 17 the government was again investigating. Days later, they learned the probe of the fire department had been closed. Before April, the county had not communicated with the Justice Department about the matter since 2016, Smith said.
It’s unclear what prompted the Justice Department to revive its inquiry of the police department. Officials there declined to comment beyond the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that the county engaged in a “pattern or practice of discrimination” against African American applicants for entry-level police officer and cadet positions by making hiring decisions based on a multiple-choice screening test that was not job-related. Black applicants failed at a greater rate than white applicants.
The county has not yet filed a legal response, but Olszewski told The Baltimore Sun his administration is trying to negotiate with the federal government to resolve the claims.
The federal lawsuit focuses on the police screening test written by the county’s Office of Human Resources and administered from 2013 until this year. The lawsuit doesn’t disclose pass rates but says the difference between black and white applicants was “statistically significant."
Legally, a practice can be considered discriminatory if it disproportionately hurts one group even if there is no intent to discriminate. Similar cases have been resolved through agreements that require local governments to change hiring practices and compensate applicants.
The county last administered the test in April. Smith said in an email to The Sun that the human resources office decided to stop using the test “because it was not validated,” but he declined to elaborate. He said the move was unrelated to the investigation and that the county had started exploring alternatives in February.
University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer, a former trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said it’s likely the test "produces hiring that is way out of line with the [local] demographics.”
“There’s a great deal of precedent against police departments using tests for hiring that disproportionately screen out minorities and that don’t have much in particular to do with the actual day-to-day work of real police officers,” Tiefer said.
Like other Baltimore-area departments, the county force is much less diverse than the local population. Less than 15% of officers are black, while African Americans make up 30% of the county’s population.
The Kamenetz administration often discussed diversity in public safety and how to improve it, a former aide said.
“From day one, County Executive Kamenetz was adamant about increasing the percentage of every recruit class for people of color,” said former County Executive Don Mohler, a Democrat who was Kamenetz’s chief of staff before completing Kamenetz’s term following his sudden death in 2018.
The county closely tracked the data on minority recruitment and hiring in the department, and “Kevin spoke regularly in public on the importance of diversity,” Mohler said.
The department targeted minorities in advertising and recruitment efforts, said former Police Chief Jim Johnson, who left in 2017 after a decade as chief.
Johnson said that when the Office of Human Resources developed the screening tests, representatives of the police department offered comment, but he didn’t know if the input was taken into account.
If the tests were disproportionately excluding one group year after year, it should have raised red flags, said Mark S. Brodin, a law professor at Boston College who has written about discriminatory tests in police departments.
The county needed to “re-evaluate the exam’s validity” — that is, determine whether it accurately predicted success on the job, Brodin said. “Are these questions a really valid predictor of success as a line police officer?” Most experts, he said, “are generally pretty skeptical about the relation.”
Brodin questioned why the county would use a test that disproportionately excludes people at the beginning of the process.
“You have more than ample opportunity in the course of the academy to weed out people who are clearly not up to doing this kind of job,” Brodin said.
The lawsuit surprised some legal observers because it was brought during the Trump administration, which has backed away from using the power of the federal government to force police departments to make changes.
Vanita Gupta, who served as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division from 2014-2017 under President Obama, said the lawsuit “marks a welcome change” for the current administration, which she called “hostile to civil rights investigations into allegations of systemic misconduct by police departments.”
Gupta referred questions about the Obama administration’s investigation of the county to current Justice Department officials.
But Gupta, now president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she is concerned about the ability of the federal government to bring about change in the local department because former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo on his last day in office that limited the use of consent decrees.
“Sessions’ gutting of consent decrees could be a significant impediment to improving the situation in Baltimore County,” Gupta said in a statement. “His memo limits the duration of consent decrees to no longer than three years, when systemic changes can take longer.”
In other states, similar employment discrimination cases pursued by the Justice Department have often resulted in consent decrees requiring local governments to develop new testing practices. Those court agreements also often include compensation for applicants who were disqualified by the policies alleged to be discriminatory.
For instance, in 2014, the city of Austin, Texas was required to pay $780,000 to entry-level firefighter applicants after the federal government alleged the city used a written test that disproportionately excluded African Americans and Hispanics.
In another Texas case, the city of Lubbock in 2016 entered a settlement requiring it to pay $725,000 to Hispanic and female applicants who were disqualified by written and physical fitness tests for probationary police officer positions.
In January 2012, around the time the Justice Department first contacted Baltimore County about hiring practices, Rep. Elijah Cummings wrote to Kamenetz with questions about the county’s “diversity plans.” The Baltimore Democrat’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Rep. Andy Harris’ office also didn’t respond to requests for comment. Harris, whose district includes parts of Baltimore County, is the lone Republican representing Maryland in Congress.
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.