The Justice Department sued Baltimore County, Maryland, and its police department last week, accusing them of discriminating against black applicants for entry-level police jobs – a rare step in making an allegation of systemic misconduct by law enforcement under the Trump administration.
The lawsuit alleges a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against employees or applicants based on race, among other things. It appears to be one of the only examples of a so-called pattern-or-practice lawsuit – a full-scale civil rights inquiry into policing practice – filed under the President Donald Trump-led Department of Justice against a police agency. While the type of investigation was used throughout the Obama administration, in line with a national reckoning over officer-involved shootings, the Justice Department in recent years has largely avoided the practice as they’ve shifted tone to one that embraces rank and file police and prioritizes morale over sweeping reform efforts.
According to the lawsuit, the police force, which covers a largely suburban area outside the city of Baltimore, used a written exam to test for things like reading comprehension and “interpretation of data,” and black applicants failed at a statistically significant higher rate than white applicants.
“As a result of its use of these written examinations, Baltimore County has hired fewer African American applicants as BCPD entry-level police officers and police cadets since January 1, 2013 than it would have had it used a non-discriminatory screening device,” the lawsuit contends.
The Justice Department has continued to bring cases against police officers for specific allegations of misconduct, like excessive force, although Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, sharply limited the use of consent decrees, a court-enforced agreement that federal officials had entered into with a law enforcement agency to remedy bad behavior.
The Baltimore County case is an employment discrimination suit and does not allege the sort of patterns of racial targeting or excessive force that several Obama-era cases often dealt with.
Still, detractors of the Trump administration’s civil rights work welcomed the lawsuit as a “significant” signal.
“It’s significant that this was allowed to go through in the Trump era. It shouldn’t be significant, but it is, because of (the Trump Justice Department’s) history of abdicating its responsibility on these systemic investigations,” said Vanita Gupta, the former Obama-era DOJ civil rights chief and president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a civil rights coalition.
The Justice Department on Tuesday called the alleged hiring misconduct in Baltimore County unintentional, saying in its lawsuit that the tests “are not job-related for the positions in question.” They’re asking the county to fix its entrance exams and provide remedial relief to applicants that suffered loss as a result of the tests.
“Employers must be mindful that an employment selection device, like a test, must be shown to be job-related if it disproportionately excludes members of one of Title VII’s protected groups,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
Out of 1,910 officers, 280 are African American, accounting for just over 15% of the department, the department said. Nearly 30% of the Baltimore County population is African American, according to the 2018 census.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said Tuesday that the police force has stopped using the test by the Justice Department and that he has created two “diversity-focused positions” within the county government.
“A law enforcement agency should look like the community it serves. As I have said repeatedly since taking office, I am committed to increasing diversity in the County’s Police Department,” Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, said in a statement.
Olszewski added that the county is “willing to negotiate” with the Justice Department to resolve the lawsuit “in a way that best serves the Baltimore County Police Department and our mission of advancing public safety for all of Baltimore County.”
The Baltimore County police are a separate agency from the Baltimore City Police Department, whose practices were scrutinized following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered fatal spinal injuries while in their custody.
After that incident, the Justice Department ushered in a series of police reforms in the city in the form of a 227-page consent decree. The suit filed Tuesday against the Baltimore County Police Department is unrelated to the consent decree.
In Baltimore County, criminal justice activists expressed hope that a more diverse police force would help address problems locally, like black drivers who face a disproportionate number of traffic stops.
“I think that if you have a diverse department all the way through that those things tend not to happen, or at least are reduced,” said Anthony Fugett, the president the NAACP’s branch in Baltimore County.