Diversity or Safety? Justice Dept. Orders Lower Standards for Police Exam

On March 1, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee to answer charges that the DOJ improperly dismissed the New Black Panthers voter intimidation case. At the hearing, Mr. Holder took exception to earlier comments from noted civil rights attorney Bartle Bull: Bull had called it the worst act of voter intimidation he had seen in his long career.

In response to Bull's quote, Holder said that comparing this incident with the civil rights struggle "does a great disservice to people who put their lives on the line, who risked all, for my people.”

It now appears that an even more egregious example of the racial discrimination that has become policy in the Obama/Holder DOJ was already underway.

Due to dozens of retirements, the Dayton, Ohio, Police Department began a hiring cycle. Using an initial test developed by an outside company to eliminate racial bias, a passing score on one part of the test was set at 66% and a second part was set at 72%. However, despite Dayton’s pressing need for police officers, the DOJ forced Dayton to postpone the hiring process for months, and finally demanded that the passing scores be lowered to 58% and 63%.

Under the new lower standards, 258 additional applicants passed the test. The city of Dayton has declined to identify the racial make-up of those passing.

The DOJ is involved because of a consent decree with the city of Dayton announced on February 26, 2009 -- the DOJ filed a suit against Dayton under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, alleging that Dayton’s hiring practices for police officers and firefighters created a “disparate impact” on African-Americans. At the time, African-Americans comprised about 9% of Dayton's police force and only about 3% of their firefighters.

Dayton agreed to throw out its internally generated entrance examinations and other procedures objectionable to the DOJ.  The examination used in the most recent round of testing was a result of the consent decree, and was designed -- by a company specializing in such matters -- to eliminate any possibility of “disparate impact” or race-based discrimination. Yet this exam also failed to provide a quota of African-American applicants suitable to the DOJ, hence the dramatically lowered thresholds and damaging delays.

Unsurprisingly, the Dayton Fraternal Order of Police was not pleased with the DOJ’s actions. FOP President Randy Beane said:

It becomes a safety issue to have an incompetent officer next to you in a life-and-death situation.

Perhaps surprisingly, Dayton NAACP President Derrick Forward said:

If you lower the score for any group of people, you’re not getting the best qualified people for the job. ... The NAACP does not support individuals failing a test and then having the opportunity to be gainfully employed.

Mr. Forward deserves credit for understanding the insult inherent in lowering test scores for racial reasons so that the plainly unqualified may pass. The potential consequences for Dayton -- intended and unintended -- and for police forces and fire departments around the nation will be more severe than even Mr. Holder intends.

While I am not aware of exactly how the Dayton exam is used, such instruments are commonly used as initial screening examinations designed to detect the minimum level of common sense and basic human skills -- and I do mean minimum -- necessary to establish an eligibility list for further testing. Those who pass such initial tests do not immediately become police recruits. If a police agency has 50 openings, it will commonly accept only the top 50 scores -- scores which will always be substantially higher than the established minimums because those minimums are considered the bottom of the ability barrel (a barrel the bottom of which no sane police leader wants to scrape).

As a police officer, I often participated in the selection process for police recruits.

Anyone would be amazed at the “diversity” of those who walk through the door to take such tests, and I’m not referring to race. Many apparently have no idea that when applying for a job requiring great maturity and responsibility, it would be wise to shave and to wear clothing such that their lunch for the last few days can’t be identified at a glance. Some are unacquainted with bathing and other basic aspects of disease control and personal hygiene. Some wear sufficient piercings to set off airport metal detectors from the parking lot.

Many who take such tests are drawn by the romance and authority of the job, but are simply unqualified. In any such test, at least half won’t come close to passing, and some will pass but score so poorly as to be untouchables. As with any human endeavor, a few are exceptional, more are good, most are average, and the rest are simply not up to the task -- a task measured in Dayton’s case by an unusually generous passing score determined even before DOJ intervention.

Once an eligibility list is established, applicants are commonly put through a physical fitness test to weed out obvious medical ineligibility and lack of fitness that would render them dangerous to themselves or others. I’ve actually witnessed applicants black out or have cardiac incidents due to previously undiagnosed conditions. In some cases, the rejection saved their lives.

Having passed the first two steps, intensive background checks are done, and the applicants commonly take psychological fitness examinations such as the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Inventory (MMPI). In some agencies there are additional tests of various kinds, including questioning by panels of serving officers of various ranks (and in smaller agencies, personal interviews with the sheriff or chief of police). However, one common test in most agencies is a polygraph, where the essential truthfulness of a candidate is assessed. This test also gives an agency an opportunity to discover disqualifying personal facts that an applicant might not otherwise divulge. Candidates are eliminated when background checks reveal sufficiently damaging skeletons in their closets, and psychological issues that might be otherwise overlooked are commonly discovered in that round of testing.