Baltimore County

Investigation highlights Balto. Co. minority hiring struggle

When Baltimore County Police Capt. Andre Davis took command, late in 2010, of recruiting and hiring, he could see that efforts to bring in African-Americans had slipped. Background checks were not being completed on many applicants, and no effort was being made to see that black candidates showed up for physical and written exams.

He said he reformed those practices but acknowledges that it will take much more over many years to reverse a decades-long deficiency in minority hiring. In a county that is 26 percent African-American, the department is 11 percent black, a figure that has changed very little in years.

Davis, who now commands the Woodlawn precinct and is among the department's three highest-ranking African-Americans, praises the county's recent efforts but adds, "we've made no progress, that has already been made clear."

Now the U.S. Department of Justice wants answers. The agency has opened an investigation into possible violations of the Civil Rights Act in hiring African-Americans for entry-level uniformed positions in the Police and Fire departments.

The latest inquiry comes more than 30 years after the county settled a suit with the federal agency charging discrimination against blacks and women in all county hiring. It's been 14 years since the agency opened an inquiry into the Fire Department after a noose was placed in a black firefighter's gear. The Justice Department closed that inquiry in 2003 without filing charges.

No such blatant racist acts have been publicly alleged in this case, but under the Civil Rights Act, the Justice Department can conclude there has been a violation of the law without finding an intent to discriminate. It's more often a question of recruiting and hiring procedures and outcomes.

There are now 203 African-American officers in a Police Department of 1,858 men and women in uniform. African-American representation in the Fire Department is a bit higher at 15.6 percent: 156 black uniformed members out of 997.

The low numbers of black members are variously blamed on past administrations' lack of commitment to diversity, recent low turnover in the Police Department, and, in the Fire Department, a tendency to hire from volunteer fire companies, which are overwhelmingly white.

The County Council's lone black member, Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, saw the problem in stark terms and said it exists in all county hiring.

"It's still a good-old-boy network … They're going to hire people who look like them," said Oliver, A Democrat, calling on County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to "take a stand, saying, 'I want it corrected and I want it corrected now.'"

Kamenetz, a fellow Democrat, has said that he considers it a "top priority" to have a government workforce that reflects the diversity of the county.

In an early response to the Justice Department, the county cited figures showing that between 2010 and 2011, more than 31 percent of police hires and more than 38 percent of Fire Department hires were minorities.

Compared with four area jurisdictions with significant African-American populations — Baltimore City and Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties — the Baltimore County Police Department has the lowest black membership when compared to the African-American population of the county. The Fire Department ranks second of the five jurisdictions in this comparison.

Glenn Blackwell, who recently retired as a fire director, one of the highest-ranking black members of the Fire Department, said much has changed for the better since he was hired nearly 30 years ago. Still, he said, "The department clearly needs to improve its results."

Jonathan Hart, who retired last month as a division chief, the top African-American in the Fire Department, said he was surprised when he heard about the Justice Department inquiry.

"My perception was the Fire Department was moving in the right direction," he said, acknowledging that in matters of race and discrimination, "your view always depends on where you sit or where you stand."

From where Charles Tiefer stands, the statistics don't look good for the county. A professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Tiefer spent 16 years working for Congress on oversight of the Justice Department, including civil rights investigations. In his view, the county "has some explaining to do."

The county's African-American population and a government measure of the "available workforce" that is black both stand at about 26 percent. Given those figures, Tiefer said any percentage of African-American membership in those departments below 20 percent would raise red flags.

The police figure of 10.9 percent "is striking. It's so out of line," Tiefer said.

Sherrilyn Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, said, "The onus will be on the county at this point to offer an explanation as to why those numbers seem to be so impoverished."

She emphasized the importance of effort over time, especially in view of the fact that the Department of Justice had sued the county before on a similar issue.

"One would hope over 15, 20 years that one would change the practice," she said. "You have to continuously be re-evaluating what the results are."

Leaders of the Blue Guardians and the Guardian Knights, fraternal organizations of black county police officers and firefighters, respectively, took their complaints about both departments a few months ago to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. Cummings then wrote to Kamenetz in mid-January, saying the men talked about "discrimination, work-place retaliation and the lack of minority promotions for men and women."

Cummings' letter posed six questions about the county's "diversity plans." His spokesman would not say whether the Baltimore Democrat contacted the Justice Department, but less than three weeks after he wrote his letter to Kamenetz, the federal agency's Civil Rights Division wrote to the county's Office of Law saying it was opening an inquiry into hiring of African-Americans for entry-level, uniformed positions.

After news of the inquiry broke, Patricia Cook-Ferguson, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, wrote to the Justice Department, insisting on a "thorough investigation" and mentioning the organization's "long-standing concern regarding a deficiency" in hiring, retaining and promoting African-Americans in the county police and fire departments.

The federal agency's focus on entry-level positions is typical of these inquiries, Tiefer said, as that's where the greatest potential lies for expanding African-American representation in the departments.

The federal agency does not impose quotas, but Tiefer said it will want to hear what the county's goals are and how it plans to meet them.

"What carries weight with Justice Department lawyers is some combination of effort and minority levels among applicants and among entry-level hires," Tiefer said.

He said the Justice Department could seek an array of remedies. The agency could ask that the county change its recruiting and hiring procedures, including changes in written tests. It could order the department to establish a fund to compensate minorities who have experienced hiring discrimination, and provide priority job offers for minorities who meet all job requirements.

As part of the settlements with the county in 1979 and 1980, the federal agency established goals for hiring minorities and women.

Kamenetz has already begun making the county's case. His 10-page letter to Cummings last month — with a copy to a Justice Department official — argued that both departments "have made significant progress" and included details of county efforts and results.

Kamenetz said that through 2015, the Police Department plans to devote nearly two-thirds of recruitment efforts to areas with significant "minority" populations. He said the county wants minorities — which it defines as nonwhite people — to make up at least a third of all applicants. In 2011, Kamenetz said, the department topped the applicant goal with 46 percent of applicants for police officer jobs.

In the fire department, Kamenetz wrote that of the 114 people who were hired for uniformed positions in the last two years, 39 percent were minorities. Information compiled by the county says that of those, 34 percent were African-American.

Tiefer said those numbers show "they're going in the right direction" and would be significant in any Justice Department investigation.

Police Major Joseph E. Burris, who has approved all hiring since August 2009, acknowledged that the contingent of African-Americans remained about 9 percent or 10 percent for years. In the last four or five years, he said, efforts to hire minorities have been hampered by low turnover. He said more officers appear to be staying put both because of poor economic conditions and an economic incentive program designed to encourage senior officers to stay on the job longer.

Before 2008, he said, the department could usually count on about 100 officers leaving every year and two academy classes each year with 50 to 60 recruits each. The numbers of recruits in each class then dropped about in half, and last year there was only one recruiting class of 35.

"If we have class sizes of 50 to 60, we can make a difference" in African-American representation in the department, Burris said. "We are not satisfied with 11 percent" black representation in the department, he said, adding that Police Chief Jim Johnson "wants the Police Department to mirror the community we serve."

Johnson, who was appointed police chief in 2007, was recognized in 2010 by the Blue Guardians for his commitment to diversity. Last year, he received the Trailblazer Award from the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP for his willingness to listen to the concerns of African-Americans in the county.

Davis, the current Woodlawn precinct commander who worked under Burris as commander of the employment section from August 2010 to last December, said he made some changes meant to expand the African-American applicant pool. He revived the field recruiter program that had been allowed to lapse, adding to the two full-time recruiters six police officers — including some African-Americans — who could be called upon to work as recruiters for short periods of time.

"The issue is getting enough minorities in the door so they can take the test," Davis said. More minority applicants, he said, would result not only in more hires but more promotions.

Blackwell, the retired fire director, was the head of the department's applicant unit from 2007 to 2011. If he could change anything in department practices, he said, he would like to see less preference given to applicants with volunteer firefighting experience, as that effectively favors whites. Last year, he said, about 85 percent of those in the last recruit class had experience as volunteers.

Blackwell was hired in 1982, as the county was operating under Justice Department oversight after settling the lawsuit, filing regular reports on minority hiring. He remembers some grumbling among his white colleagues about that, but said, "they would accept you once you showed you could do your job."

The current investigation decades later could lead to the same sort of federal oversight. Davis said the test will be what happens over the long term, when the pressure lets up.

"Will the department do the right thing for the right reasons? That's what remains to be seen," he said.

Minority representation in police, fire departments

Baltimore County

Black population: 26 percent

Black contingent in police dept.: 10.9

Black contingent in fire dept.: 15.6

Baltimore City

Black population: 63.7

Police dept.: 41.4

Fire dept.: 32

Prince George's County

Black population: 64.5

Police dept.: 44

Fire dept.: 34

Howard County

Black population: 17.5

Police dept.: 15.2

Fire dept.: 11.3

Anne Arundel County

Black population: 15.5

Police dept.: 7.1

Fire dept.: 5.9

Source: Local government information, U.S. Census Bureau