The U.S. Department of Justice sued the Baltimore County government Tuesday, alleging that a written test for police officer recruits was unfairly biased against African American applicants.
African American applicants failed the test at a greater rate than white applicants, resulting in fewer African Americans being hired as police officers, the Department of Justice wrote in the lawsuit. The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, did not include the pass rates, but said the difference was “statistically significant.”
The exams tested reading, grammar, logic and other skills that the suit alleges are not related to the job of being a police officer or police cadet.
Police officials declined to comment, referring inquiries to the county executive’s office. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. issued a statement saying the police department has discontinued the test. He did not say when the test was discontinued.
“A law enforcement agency should look like the community it serves,” Olszewski, a Democrat, said in the statement. “As I have said repeatedly since taking office, I am committed to increasing diversity in the county’s Police Department.”
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. County officials did not respond to a request for the current racial makeup of the police department’s officers.
Olszewski noted that he’s created two positions in his administration focused on improving diversity. He said he’ll work with interested organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Police and the Blue Guardians, which represents minority police officers.
Justice Department officials would not comment on the lawsuit and would not say when they started investigating the Baltimore County Police Department.
While the federal lawsuit alleged the test was discriminatory because it asked questions not related to the position of being a police officer, the suit did not include a copy of the test or examples of the questions.
The lawsuit said the test has taken different forms over the years. The most recent version, used from 2015 forward, had 100 questions. Only applicants who scored 70% or higher moved forward in the hiring process.
The first part of the exam tested observation skills by having the applicant review a photograph and answer 15 questions about it. The second part had 85 questions on reading comprehension, “logical ordering,” writing and grammar, and data interpretation.
The lawsuit alleges that the use of the test amounts to a “pattern or practice of discrimination” against the African American applicants. It asks the court to order that the county stop using the test, make “remedial relief” to those who suffered discrimination and adopt “appropriate nondiscriminatory measures” to correct the discrimination.
Anthony Russell, president of the Blue Guardians, said he’s long had concerns about the application process for police officers.
Over the years, Russell said he’s seen the number of African American applicants increase, but that hasn’t translated to more minority officers being hired.
Somewhere in the process, African American applicants were being eliminated, Russell said. He had not suspected the test, he said, but had previously asked Olszewski and Hyatt to order an independent review of the hiring process.
“Recruitment has done its job in getting people to apply,” said Russell, who is a sergeant in the department. “The number of minority applicants unfortunately did not result in hires.”
Russell said it’s important to have diversity among the sworn police officers.
“It makes the community feel more comfortable, that’s part one,” he said. “Part two, sometimes based on how you grew up, where you grew up, what your experiences are, you bring a different lens to the situation.”
Baltimore County Council members seemed surprised to learn about the lawsuit. At the end of their public work session Tuesday afternoon in Towson, several council members huddled behind closed doors in the council library.
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Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who is the only African American on the council, said he was “taken aback” by the allegations in the lawsuit.
“I’m confident that the current administration is going to do any and everything necessary to make sure we’re not discriminating against people,” Jones said.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said she hadn’t yet reviewed the lawsuit, but had concerns.
“It would be disappointing to know because we’re talking about trying to have more diversity in all of public safety, the fire department and police department," said Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.
Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said he was “rather shocked” and wanted to investigate the allegations further.
“It’s important that everyone have equal access in taking a look at all of the measurements we use to determine whether to hire someone,” Kach said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.