The Maryland State Police value statistics and rank, while devaluing diversity and penalizing individuals who speak out about microaggressions or unfair treatment, according to a Morgan State University report summarizing focus groups held with sworn and civilian employees last year.
The agency has, for years, faced scrutiny around its treatment of minority troopers — including pointed questions from lawmakers, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and a federal lawsuit seeking class- action status on behalf of troopers of color alleging racial discrimination.
The Morgan State qualitative study, obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, adds evidence of challenges around diversity and inclusion in the statewide police force. Sworn troopers of color told university researchers they were subjected to microaggressions and macroaggressions, and had to be mentored by commanders on how to respond and navigate the predominantly white force.
“When I first arrived at the barrack, there was this bias that you had to overcome,” one sworn state police member is quoted as saying in the report. “People are watching you. How, you know, ‘How is this person going to take this? If I say this? How far can I go with this?’ ... You have to set the line that cannot be crossed.”
Speaking out about the culture or specific problematic incidents, sworn employees said, is unsupported.
“‘If you see something, don’t say something,’ you know? You’ll be fine,” one said.
But if you’re someone who will “call a flag” if something is wrong, you become a problem, they went on: “Then the agency has ways to deal with you. Sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.”
The researchers wrote that participants shared “microaggression slights and insults” across social categories, including sexual orientation, rank, race and political views. The behaviors, they wrote, “communicate systemic valuing or devaluing of a person.”
The research, for which the state police paid roughly $39,000, summarized focus groups with 40 state police employees, 27 of whom were sworn personnel of different ranks. The respondents’ identities are shielded in the report. Morgan State associate professor Asha Layne declined to share demographic information due to privacy and retaliation concerns. But she described the respondents as a “diverse representation across racial and ethnic lines.”
The state police declined an interview request from The Baltimore Sun and provided written responses to questions. Spokespeople for the department said the agency “appreciates the efforts” of the university, in partnership with the agency’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. The response added that state police take the study’s results “seriously.”
“The MDSP is currently evaluating all information contained in the report,” the Maryland Department of State Police statement said, adding that “next steps are under review at this time.”
The report said the agency needs to “foster a ‘top-down’ culture of accountability” and a better “internal checks and balances system” to ensure that policies are followed regardless of rank or social standing. It pointed to respondents’ perception of the department’s “subjective” punishments, including harsher sanctions for employees of color.
“Strict monitoring of adherence to policy and MSP’s core principles would remove distrust, cynicism and confusion between the [employee] and employer and, subsequently, between the police and community,” the study said.
In its written responses, state police noted the sample size made up “less than 2%” of its 2,100 employees. It said agency officials recognize the importance of having a “wider sample size” to “adequately represent the overall department and gain a deeper understanding of any issues that may need to be addressed.”
“In response to the results of the Morgan State study, which we believe has limitations, we will work to obtain a deeper insight into the root causes of any dissatisfaction that may exist and take meaningful actions to address them,” the agency said.
No specific ways of obtaining those insights were provided. It did note that the department is working “towards developing an action plan” and that Col. Roland Butler, the superintendent, encourages employees to participate in future feedback opportunities.
The report itself noted participation rates for the study were lower than anticipated — no sworn troopers with less than two years’ job experience volunteered for the focus groups and there was little community member involvement. Researchers offer a variety of factors for the small sample size, including the location and frequency of focus groups and employees’ fear of retaliation. It also noted advertisements for study participants were done using the agency’s software, which limited researchers’ ability to monitor the recruitment.
The research came out of a 2021 work group on diversity, which was requested by the Maryland General Assembly and included state police officials, researchers and stakeholder groups. During the work group, members recommended convening internal focus groups to better understand employees’ views on their sense of belonging, inclusion and value.
State budget documents from the fiscal year that began July 1 include data showing the agency in 2021 was roughly 80% white and 15% Black, with less than 2% of employees from other minority groups. About 20% were women. Civilian employees, who make up roughly a third of the agency’s employees, were slightly more diverse. Sworn members were 83% white and 7.5% female.
The Sun last year revealed the existence of a series of offensive challenge coins distributed among members of the agency that led to an admonition from the then-superintendent calling the actions a “national embarrassment.” Earlier this month, The Sun also first reported on a corporal who sent a meme mocking George Floyd’s murder, a week after Minneapolis police killed him.
A General Assembly joint committee on state personnel oversight is expected on Sept. 20 to discuss “workplace culture and employee relations” at three state agencies, including the state police.
In addition to sharing experiences with biases and microaggressions, state police employees who participated in focus groups described feeling their individual backgrounds were underappreciated. The agency, they said, values “stats and no complaints,” but “individual characteristics that make somebody unique ... are not valued.”
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“Being a police officer, you know, protector, guardian, being a good neighbor ... Those are highly valued,” one respondent said. “Race, in some degree, is not valued very highly. Diversity is not valued very highly.”
Civilian staff, meanwhile, described a preferential treatment for sworn personnel that contributes to a divisive environment. They also reported hitting promotional ceilings quickly, a lack of educational opportunities and a sense their opinions are not valued.
“You can only point things out so much and be ignored before you just say, ‘Why even bother anymore?’” one civilian participant said. “I feel like that’s the attitude that trickles down.”
Both civilian and sworn personnel discussed mistrust in state police processes including promotions, discipline and job applications. They also described a sense that, among “higher ups,” a “buddy system” takes precedence over the agency’s core values.
Recommendations from employees, summarized in the report, included reevaluating recruitment; offering more diversity, equity and inclusion training; increasing diversity; educating high-ranking officials about microaggressions; improving transparency including around evaluations and denied promotions; creating opportunities for civilian staff, and treating employees fairly. Another: Refraining from “exploiting” someone’s identity for marketing or recruitment efforts.
Layne described this study as a “start” for the agency moving forward, and called further research “critically important.” Layne added that she anticipated meaningful conversations and making recommendations in the report a formal practice.
“If it’s not coming from the top as being something of importance,” she said, referring to conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion, “it’s just going to be forgotten.”