Tests, background checks can thwart police diversity effort

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A man holds up a sign during a protest, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. Racism trips up Black police candidates at the very beginning of the application process and as they seek later promotion, complicating efforts to make law enforcement agencies more diverse, say numerous experts and Black police associations and officers. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Racism trips up Black police candidates at the very start of the application process and later as they seek promotion, complicating efforts to make law enforcement agencies more diverse, experts, officers and Black police associations say.

Black applicants to law enforcement agencies are often filtered out early through racially biased civil service exams, accusations spelled out in multiple lawsuits over the years. And applicants are rejected thanks to criminal background checks that turn up drug and traffic offenses attributable to discriminatory policing, and poor financial histories that can stem from racial profiling, records and interviews show.

“Black and brown candidates — they’ll gig them on credit issues, they’ll gig them on minor brushes previously with law enforcement, they’ll gig them on what they perceive as attitude issues,” said Charles Wilson, national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

It's a decades-old problem gaining renewed attention following global protests over police brutality and racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Black and Hispanic men have disproportionately high rates of contact with law enforcement at an early age, leading to records that often disqualify them from becoming police officers, said Ronnie Dunn, a Cleveland State University urban affairs professor.

Nationally, about 11% of officers in local police departments are Black, a percentage that declines the smaller the community served, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics. Blacks account for about 12% of the U.S. population and are represented at much higher rates in big cities.

In Pittsburgh, a 2012 federal lawsuit alleged the city police department systematically rejected Black applicants at the outset of the process after background checks turned up traffic tickets or drug offenses. But the city didn't disqualify “Caucasian applicants for entry level police officer positions who have committed offenses similar to or even more serious,” the lawsuit said. In a settlement, the city paid $985,000 to Black applicants rejected between 2008 and 2014.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department sued Maryland’s Baltimore County, alleging its written exams for hiring police officers have discriminated against Black applicants for years. The county denies the allegation.