Police action: The ACLU raises hard questions on hiring

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A federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last week raises important questions about the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police's record on hiring black applicants. It's not the first time that the proportion of African-Americans in the ranks has been brought up in U.S. District Court.

In 1975, following allegations that women and minorities were underrepresented in the department, a court order was issued requiring Pittsburgh to hire officers in groups of four -- a black man, a black woman, a white man and a white woman. That order was followed for 15 years, and a force that had been almost entirely white and male was diversified, with black officers making up 26 percent of the ranks and women 24 percent.

That quota hiring system was dissolved in response to another lawsuit, this one filed by white men who had been passed over for jobs.

The situation today is not the same as it was in 1975. The city has made significant efforts to attract minority candidates for its police force, as well as other departments, including job fairs in minority communities, outreach to black churches, working with Community College of Allegheny County to offer free test preparation, and recruiting outside the city of Pittsburgh, both in the suburbs and in other states.

The city did draw its largest applicant pool (1,357) and its largest number of minority candidates (298) in 2010. Unfortunately, the number of candidates who made it through the selection process -- either because they withdrew or were weeded out -- was not representative of the population, which is approximately 26 percent black. In 2010, the bureau hired only one black man in a class of 36 recruits. A class of 41 cadets that began training last week included five minorities, two of whom are black. According to the suit, the percentage of African-Americans hired as new officers since 2001 was just 3.8 percent of the classes.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of two black men who applied but were not selected as Pittsburgh officers. The suit claims the selection system is inherently biased, and it cites four major flaws: a written exam that generated a failure rate of 13.8 percent for black candidates, but only 2.8 percent for whites; oral exams that give unfair advantages to individuals who are relatives or friends of current officers; uneven evaluations of performance on fitness tests; and the so-called Chief's Roundtable, where a panel of city officials led by police Chief Nate Harper make the final selections, a step that the ACLU claims favors candidates with connections to the force.

Pittsburgh is not alone in facing the challenges of creating a police force that looks like the city it serves, but the results remain disappointing. Could it be that only a court-ordered remedy will guarantee success? We hope the ACLU lawsuit will generate useful answers.

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