When the list of new Baltimore Police sergeants is released at the end of the month, it will be far shorter than in the past.
Only 32 of the 273 officers who took the sergeant’s test passed, according to the city’s Department of Human Resources, which oversees the exam.
The passing rate of 11.7 percent is far lower than the last three sergeant exams, which have been given every two years. The passing rate was over 60 percent in 2016 and 50 percent in 2012 and 2014.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Lt. Gene Ryan, outgoing president of the city’s police union. “It’s a serious problem.”
James Bentley, a spokesman for Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, said in an email Thursday that “the Department of Human Resources is still working to assess the anomaly of this year’s pass rate.”
The low passing rate comes as the city has been struggling to boost recruitment to fill some 500 officer vacancies, and after a recent staffing study conducted as part of the city’s federal consent decree found the department suffers from “a severe shortage of sergeants.”
The department is “short across the board,” Bentley said. “This is a piece of it.”
Ryan said he’s never heard of such a low passage rate in his 36 years with the department. He said the number of officers who passed this year “isn’t enough to get us through two years.”
He said the shortage of sergeants is especially troubling for a police department like Baltimore, which has many young officers and high turnover.
It’s also the latest setback for a department that is in the midst of its deadliest 30-day stretch since 2015, with 43 people killed in the past month. The department also has seen a number of high-profile departures, including a top commander who resigned last week after slamming a chair into a wall during a meeting, and its chief spokesman, T.J. Smith, who resigned, citing an unstable environment — with “mudslinging” within the department and “political turmoil” all around it — as the driving force behind his decision.
The sergeant promotional exam is given to officers with at least three years of experience. The written portion of the exam consists of multiple-choice questions regarding department practices and procedures, and city, state and federal laws related to police work, among other things. Officers who pass the written exam are eligible to take the oral exam, which evaluates the candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities in areas such as administrative or technical procedures, reasoning and judgement, communication, and ability to work with others.
Of the 37 officers who passed the written exam in June, 32 went on to pass the oral exam in August.
Ryan said he’s not sure why so few officers passed, but suggested that many policies have changed or the test could have been more difficult this year. He said it’s also possible that many officers who took the exam might have been coming off of overtime shifts, which have become mandatory because the department is currently short-staffed.
A sergeant who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the issue said this year’s exam differed from previous years, focusing more on “21st century policing philosophy.” He said the officers were unprepared.
At a monthly city council police oversight briefing on Wednesday, council members learned of internal affairs cases, including one alleging cheating on the exam. Police commanders disclosed a case in which a lieutenant was disciplined after being overheard on a wiretap sharing answers to the sergeant exam.
“This is extremely concerning for me and I am going to follow up with BPD for more info,” said Councilman Brandon Scott, chairman of the public safety committee. “This, along with us learning that answers were given out to a test in the past, raise a lot of concerns.”
Ryan said sergeants are an important position in the department, serving as an officer’s direct supervisor. He said it’s also challenging because it is someone “who must motivate officers but also respond to the demands of their superiors.”
“It’s a tightrope really,” Ryan said.
Sergeants also serve as a role-model, instructor and mentor for new officers, who must learn a lot on the job, Ryan said.
The recent staffing study, which was released last month, found that the shortage of sergeants means that often only one sergeant is on duty in a police district and that certain officers routinely serve as “acting sergeants.”
The report said the department must address this shortage quickly to meet the requirements under the federal consent decree.
At a quarterly hearing for the consent decree this week, Interim Commissioner Gary Tuggle said it’s “ludicrous” for officers to be promoted to a supervisory role with only three years of experience. He said the department is considering adding an intermediary rank, such a corporal, to provide a path for those who want leadership positions but might not have the needed experience yet.
It remains unclear how the department will resolve the issue of not having enough sergeants. Administering the exam comes at an expense.
The most recent sergeants exam cost the city $93,000. That included $20,900 for airfare for 38 examiners who traveled to Baltimore from various locations, $26,000 for hotel rooms, $11,600 for four ballrooms at the Baltimore Convention Center and even $1,300 for coffee and snacks.
Sergeant exam passing rate through the years
2018: 32 or 273, or 11.7 percent
2016: 176 of 290, or 60.7 percent
2014: 171 of 330, or 51.8 percent
2012: 218 of 412, or 52.9 percent