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PG police must change biased promotion system, U.S. judge says

The judge based his preliminary decision on statistical evidence indicating the department's promotional system has an “adverse impact” on officers of color, as shown by their low promotion rates. (Washington Post/Matt McClain)

The judge based his preliminary decision on statistical evidence indicating the department’s promotional system has an “adverse impact” on officers of color, as shown by their low promotion rates. (Washington Post/Matt McClain)

A federal judge Wednesday ordered the Prince George’s County Police Department to change its method for promoting officers, saying the PGCPD likely discriminated intentionally against Black and Hispanic officers who applied for promotion.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang based his preliminary decision on statistical evidence indicating the department’s promotional system has an “adverse impact” on officers of color, as shown by their low promotion rates. Chuang also cited strong “circumstantial evidence” of bias, such as white officers being appointed to senior positions ahead of Blacks and Hispanics.

In addition, the judge noted the PGCPD’s “deliberate indifference” to concerns of bias first raised in 2012, saying the department “has done virtually nothing to address them.”

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which represents the Black and Hispanic Officers suing the department, hailed Chuang’s decision.

“We applaud the court’s order, because equity inside the department is critical to the police’s external relationship with a community that is majority Black and Latinx,” Joanna Wasik, an attorney with the committee, said in a statement. “The court has now directed that the county fix the discriminatory practices at PGPD, and make sure that there is an inclusive process for deciding on the right officers to lead the force to fairly and safety serve the community.”

Chuang also cited an expert’s report submitted by the minority officers indicating that the department failed to discipline sergeants and corporals for making racially and ethnically derogatory comments. Some officers received promotions, despite having made such comments, the report stated.

“This evidence suggesting that PGCPD management has not meaningfully addressed a pattern of discriminatory animus within the PGCPD provides important context for the lack of any action to address the disparities in promotion rates and bolsters the argument that this failure is based not just on negligence or oversight, but on deliberate indifference to discrimination and, ultimately, discriminatory intent,” Chuang wrote in his memorandum opinion.

The Black and Hispanic officers challenging the promotion system as violating their constitutional right to equal protection have demonstrated “a likelihood of success on the merits” and a threat of continued harm if the system continues, added Chuang, who sits in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.

In his preliminary-injunction order, Chuang enjoined the department from continuing to use its promotion system after this month’s tests. He also ordered the department and its Black and Hispanic officers to agree on the appointment of an independent expert to review the promotion system – including written tests, skills assessment and selection processes – and recommend changes to “reduce or eliminate” the adverse impact on minority officers.

The department is to implement these changes in time for its competitive promotion cycle this October, Chuang ordered.

Prince George’s County Attorney Rhonda L. Weaver said in a statement that the department “welcomes the opportunity” to select an independent expert to review the 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 – who shoulder the tremendous responsibility of providing law enforcement services to the county’s more than 900,000 residents and business owners,” Weaver stated.

As of last year, the Prince George’s County Police Department was 43% Black, 42.5% White and 10.5% Hispanic, a racial composition not reflected in the senior ranks, according to data in Chuang’s opinion.

White officers comprised 80.7% of the captain slots, while Blacks held 19.4 percent and Hispanics 0%. At the lieutenant level, Whites held 60.9% of the posts, with Blacks comprising 27.2% and Hispanics 5.4%.

White officers comprised 51.2% of the sergeants, while Blacks accounted for 41.4% and Hispanics comprised 5.4%.

The data also showed that the promotion rates among White officers between 2012 and 2019 was 66%, compared to 43% for Black and 47% for Hispanic officers.

This adverse impact data was supplemented by circumstantial evidence of bias in filling vacancies, Chuang wrote.

“(P)articularly, where the next nine officers on the 2016 lieutenant eligibility list were Black, and six of the next seven officers on the 2018 sergeant eligibility list were Black or Hispanic, the fact that PGCPD declined to fill certain lieutenant and sergeant positions that potentially could have been filled with Black officers next on the eligibility lists, and in 2016 appointed three White officers as acting lieutenants who had not taken the promotion tests rather than the three Black officers next on the eligibility list, provides some additional evidence to support an inference of discriminatory intent,” Chuang wrote. “The fact that PGCPD has actually promoted officers who have exhibited egregious racially discriminatory animus raises additional concerns.”

Chuang issued his opinion and order in Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association NCR, United Black Police Officers Association et al. v. Prince George’s County et al., Civil Action No. TDC-18-3821.


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