A federal judge in Maryland has ordered the Prince George's County police department to stop using its current system for moving officers up the ranks, after finding that the department was discriminating against Black and Latino officers through its process for giving promotions. The judge, District Judge Theodore D. Chuang, also ordered the department to appoint an independent expert to review its promotion system.
According to a court order, filed on Wednesday as part of an ongoing lawsuit against the department by seven current and former employees, the department must adopt this new system by the time it begins new promotion cycles in October. (The court found that it was too late to honor a request from the plaintiffs to halt the current cycle, which is already underway.)
Chuang also found that the department knew about mechanisms in the department's promotional process that disadvantaged non-white officers – and in fact specifically inhibited them from moving up the ranks – but failed to take action to change its system.
"PGCPD has been aware of the significant disparities in promotion rates based on race dating back at least to 2012 but has done virtually nothing to address them," Chuang's opinion reads.
The preliminary injunction was granted as part of a years-long lawsuit against the department that was filed by a group of current and former police officers in 2018. The lawsuit has led to repeated revelations about a culture of racism within the department, including a recently-unredacted report that outlined racist and discriminatory statements made by several officers. The report, produced by a policing expert retained by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, found that the department failed to discipline officers for racism and in some cases failed to investigate complaints about racist officer behavior. Hours after a redacted version of the report was released last June, former police chief Hank Stawinski resigned.
Lt. Thomas Boone, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and President of the United Black Police Officers Association, applauded the court's order in a statement.
"We have spoken out against discriminatory practices in the hiring and promotion processes since at least 2016, and are hopeful about this first step of many towards improvement," said Boone. "The end goal will always be to create a fair and just environment for Black and Brown officers so that we can better serve our community."
Rhonda Weaver, the attorney for the county, wrote in an emailed statement to DCist/WAMU that the county "welcomes" the opportunity for an independent expert to review the police department's promotion system and recommend changes, "if necessary."
"The County and the Department are committed to ensuring that their professionally-developed promotion system continues to result in the promotion of the best qualified officers—of all races, ethnic groups, and backgrounds," wrote Weaver.
The court's order outlines a pattern that privileges white officers over Black and Latino officers in promotions.
Overall, white officers are overrepresented in the Prince George's County police department.
The county's population is 64 percent Black, 12 percent non-Hispanic white, 20 percent Latino, and 4 percent Asian American. As of last year, the police department was 43% white, 43% Black, 11% Latino, 4% Asian American or Pacific Islander, and less than 1% Native American.
Further up in the police department's ranks, the representation of Black and Latino officers gets significantly worse. As of July 2020, 51% of sergeants, 61% of lieutenants, and 81% of captains were white. Only 41% of sergeants, 27% of lieutenants, and 19% of captains were Black. The department has no Latino captains, and as of July, just 5% of officers in both the sergeant and lieutenant ranks were Latino.
In addition, data shared in the court's opinion show that while 31% of the force's white officers were in the top five ranks in the department, that was only the case for 18% of Black officers and 12% of Latino officers.
Diversity in the top ranks has either stayed the same or gotten worse in recent years, the court found.
This disparity, the court found, is driven in part by the written and skills tests used to determine which officers get promotions. Black and Latino officers routinely score lower on the tests than white officers.
Department leadership has been aware that the tests have been driving disparities in promotions since at least 2012, according to the court. In 2014 and 2015, former Chief Mark Magaw spoke with then-County Executive Rushern Baker about whether it would make sense to convert to a system of discretionary appointments to make sure that more Black and Latino officers made it to the higher ranks. But the police union objected to the change and the policy was never adjusted.
"Although PGCPD identified the problem and at least one potential means to mitigate it, it took no action, as the [Fraternal Order of Police] opposed any change to the Captain promotion process and the Chief decided that there was a lack of 'political will' to make a change," said the judge's opinion.
In 2017, the department examined its promotional system again — this time in response to a Department of Justice complaint filed by Black and Latino officers. The police department convened a panel to discuss "Equality in Practices, Promotions, and Discipline," which pointed out several potential problems with the system. One concern was that since some officers were involved in vetting the tests used to determine promotions, they may have been sharing information about the tests with their friends on the police force, giving them an unfair advantage.
"Where these [subject matter experts] were reported to be predominantly white, such sharing of information may have disproportionately advantaged white officers," said the court's opinion.
Another potential problem the 2017 panel found was that officers who worked in specialty units — some of which were known for being predominantly white — likely had more time to prepare for the tests, as well as more specific training and experience that gave them an advantage on the tests over regular patrol officers.
Although the panel identified these two potential drivers of the disparity in promotions, the findings did not lead to any policy changes.
The Inspector General of the police department who co-chaired the panel left the force in 2018, and then-Chief Hank Stawinski never appointed a new co-chair. The panel never met again, and there was not another panel focused on issues related to race in the department until July 2020, when Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks established a police reform working group.
Though plaintiffs in the lawsuit sent a letter to the working group with recommendations regarding bias in promotions — and Chief Hector Velez provided the working group with relevant data — the working group's final recommendations did not include any proposals related to discrimination in the promotional system.
"The evidence thus supports the conclusion that PGCPD's efforts to address such possible constitutional violations were 'uninterested and superficial'... and that PGCPD effectively engaged in a 'policy of inaction' to address possible discrimination in the promotion process," wrote Chuang.
Chuang also pointed out that the department's system for evaluating officers' readiness for higher ranks did not take into account documented patterns of racism among certain white officers who received promotions.
In 2016, Chuang noted, the department promoted three officers with noted disciplinary issues to lieutenant.
"These officers included one who had a personal vehicle license plate with an acronym for 'Go F*** Yourself Obama," and another who had referred to his Black commanding officer as a 'baboon,' had described a senior Black civilian employee as an 'African Queen,' and had made false statements while testifying in court," wrote Chuang.
In particular, Chuang raised the example of Sgt. Thomas Denault, who referred to members of command staff as baboons and posted other racist comments about Black officers and Black county residents in a group chat. In one message, Denault captioned a photo of a Black man in handcuffs with a racist tirade about how he must have lived in "section-8 free housing, eating chicken nuggets and Hennessey, paid for with my WIC card."
"An officer such as Denault, who was found to have engaged in misconduct based on egregious racially derogatory statements, has continued to be promoted, at this point beyond Sergeant to the rank of Lieutenant," said Chuang. But at the same time, he added, "PGCPD has taken no meaningful steps to assess why many officers of color are not able to advance through the current promotions system."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.