A federal appeals court yesterday knocked down a Maryland State Police affirmative action plan that had sought to increase the number of black troopers to 22 percent of the 1,577-member force.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling released yesterday that there was not enough evidence of discrimination against blacks to require state police to use the court-ordered plan for hiring and promoting troopers.
The court's opinion, written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, said the affirmative action plan was unconstitutional because it imposed "hard-and-fast racial quotas," which would "deny some persons the opportunity to be a state trooper or to advance as a state trooper solely because they belong to a certain race."
The ruling struck down an affirmative action plan that settled a 1985 lawsuit brought by the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers against the Maryland State Police. In December 1990, the two sides signed a court order that included a new hiring and promotion plan.
"This is going to mean that the Maryland State Police will hire the most qualified and promote the most qualified," said Andrew C. Topping, a Baltimore lawyer who argued against the affirmative action plan. "Hirings and promotions will be race-neutral."
Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, an assistant Maryland attorney general who argued for the plan, said his office may ask the appellate court to rehear the case or seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The conservative court noted that the percentage of blacks on the force increased from 9.5 percent in 1980 to 17.1 percent in 1991. The three-judge panel said the recent figures are close to the 18.8 percent of blacks in the state's labor pool.
"Only when there are gross statistical disparities between the racial composition of the employer's work force and the racial composition of the relevant qualified labor pool may a court infer that the employer has racially discriminated," the court said.
The Maryland Troopers Association, a fraternal organization composed mostly of white state police officers, challenged the order in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Judge John R. Hargrove rejected efforts to block the plan, but the fraternal group appealed.
Yesterday's ruling sends the case back to Judge Hargrove.
"It was unnecessary," troopers association president Sgt. Pat Drum said of the affirmative action plan. He said state police already had taken steps to ensure fairness in hiring and promotion.
The association said in a state ment that "each trooper should be afforded an equal opportunity for promotion and each applicant an equal opportunity for employment within the Maryland State Police."
Sgt. Rufus L. Caple of the black troopers organization said the ruling could reverse the "great strides" in hiring over the years.
"I think we'll have to continue to work with the administration," Sergeant Caple said. "I think they recognize the problems that existed under the previous administrations."
Capt. Johnny Hughes, a state police spokesman, said the administration would not comment on the appellate court's decision while the case is pending in U.S. District Court.
Under the affirmative action plan, the state police organization would have had to increasing its hiring of blacks until the force was 22 percent black. The plan called for increased numbers of blacks at every rank.
Current figures show that blacks make up 18 percent of trooper probationers -- those with less than two years of service -- 21 percent of other bottom-ranking troopers, 19 percent of troopers first class, 21 percent of corporals, 15 percent of sergeants, 15 percent of first sergeants-detective sergeants, 13 percent of lieutenants, 12.5 percent captains and 9 percent majors. There are no black lieutenant colonels.
Judge Wilkinson said a 1985 report by the Maryland attorney general's office contained findings of cronyism but not discrimination in the state police.
He said the state police promotional system had the "perception" of being discriminatory without substantial proof to back it up. He supported his ruling by citing U.S. Supreme Court cases, including a 1989 decision that overturned an affirmative action plan in Richmond, Va.