Pittsburgh officials defended their efforts to improve police bureau diversity Tuesday, assailing the backgrounds of plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, while an audit suggested that recruiting of minorities had improved, even if hiring had not.
Last year the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city on behalf of five black men, seeking to represent a class of around 300 other failed applicants, claiming that the police hiring process favors relatives and friends of officers to the near-exclusion of minorities. Around 4 percent of police hires since 2001 have been African-American, according to the lawsuit.
Assistant city solicitor Wendy Kobee's motion to dismiss said the five named plaintiffs have "extremely weak individual claims" and were "inadequate to represent the proposed class."
Quoting documents from city files, Ms. Kobee wrote that plaintiff Mike J. Sharp suffered from his "admission to a long history of illicit drug use and dealing -- 'between 1996 and 2004 he smoked marijuana between 800 and 1,000 times and assisted in arranging drug deals,' " which "rendered him less desirable" as a recruit.
ACLU Pennsylvania legal director Witold Walczak called the motion "a smear devoid of reality." He said any drug use by Mr. Sharp -- now an officer with a different department -- "stopped a decade ago."
"They've turned youthful drug experimentation, which many young people these days have [done] ... and expanded that into what you see in their motion."
Ms. Kobee's motion indicated problems with the backgrounds of other plaintiffs, too.
"We have an obligation to vigorously defend our client, the city," solicitor Dan Regan said. That compelled the filing of the motion with information on the plaintiffs' backgrounds, he said.
Mr. Walczak said the city hired other candidates who admitted stealing from previous employers and who, according to lie detector tests, seemed to be untruthful when denying recent drug use. He said the city's motion ducks its near-total failure to hire minorities.
U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone is expected to put the case on hold for 90 days so the two sides can discuss settlement.
"The city is committed to diversity and equal opportunity throughout its bureaus and departments," Mr. Regan said.
City Controller Michael Lamb released an audit looking at whether the city had followed recommendations that came out of a study conducted in 2009 that showed that women and minorities tended to be clumped in low-paying city jobs.
His audit found that the city appears to be doing a far better job of recruiting minority applicants for police officer positions, with about three times as many minority applicants in 2011 than in 2005. But that hasn't translated to higher numbers of minorities in the bureau.
Last year, there were a record 440 minorities who signed up to take the civil service exam, but fewer than half showed and even fewer scored high enough to make the cut for the academy.
Mr. Lamb believes the city should help prepare minority and female applicants before they get to the academy.
"Rather than just focusing on getting more applicants, they need to work on bringing in people who are more versed at the skills that are needed at the academy," he said. "When you think about the uniformed services, it's important that those who are protecting and serve us look like the communities that they protect and serve."