Baltimore County Council members expressed surprise at news that the county is in legal trouble with the U.S. Justice Department for hiring practices within its police department. One told a Baltimore Sun reporter Tuesday that they were “taken aback” and another “rather shocked.”
Perhaps county officials get a pass for not knowing the details of why the justice department filed a lawsuit against the county, accusing it of using a biased test that eliminated African Americans from getting jobs. But they can’t feign ignorance that the police department has a diversity problem — an issue that has been public knowledge for years. We guess county officials didn’t get the seriousness of the problem. Perhaps a lawsuit is what it will take to finally force them to come up with a solution with some teeth.
It was back in 2012 that the justice department first flagged possible discrimination in the department and opened an investigation into whether there were possible violations of the Civil Rights Act in hiring African Americans. The inquiry came a few months after Rep. Elijah E. Cummings brought up the issue after hearing complaints from the union representing black officers. Of the 1,858 county police officers at the time, just 203, or 11%, were African American, according to a Sun article. The county’s African American population at the time stood at 26 percent.
All kinds of reasons were batted around at the time for the emaciated numbers: low turnover in the department, the lack of commitment by past administrations and no firm plan for diversity. The county executive at the time, Kevin Kamenetz, promised to make a diverse workforce a “top priority" and focused recruitment efforts on areas with large minority populations. Those efforts helped to recruit more officers but not enough to keep pace with the growing minority population. In 2015, minorities made up 16% of the police force and 40% of the county’s population. Blacks made up 28% of the people who live in the county and less than 13% of the force.
Perhaps a sign of how seriously the county has (or has not) taken minority hiring of late is that a day after news of the DOJ lawsuit broke, it took officials hours to dig up the answer to our questions about the department’s current racial makeup. One might imagine that consistent tracking is the first step in making progress. And the numbers the county eventually provided didn’t show a lot of progress; out of 1,910 officers on the county force, just 280 are African American, a little less than 15%. Thirty percent of residents are African American.
Lucky for current County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., he never served on the County Council, so he can pass blame to past administrations. But with a federal lawsuit looming, he faces pressure to make serious changes. Probably the most important thing he has done is to acknowledge there is a problem and not dwell on excuses.
Mr. Olszewski has already said the department is no longer using the test questioned by the justice department, which is a good first step. (The exams tested grammar, reading, logic and other skills not directly related to the job of a police officer.) He has also created two positions to focus on overall diversity hiring throughout the county. New police chief Melissa Hyatt has also promised diversity initiatives specific to the police department. Mr. Olszewski seems to be making a serious effort, but other county leaders made bold promises in the past, and we just hope that he follows through.
It’s important to have officers that reflect the makeup of the county and bring different perspectives and life experiences to the force. This helps build trust with the community and foster diverse ideas on policing.
The police department should create specific goals and benchmarks for the hiring of African American officers — and hold people accountable if the goals aren’t met. Start recruiting potential candidates in high school and figure out why African Americans don’t make it to the end of the hiring process. We hope the elimination of the test will help, but there are clearly years-long systemic issues also at play that need to be resolved.