N.J.’s ‘blind’ process to hire police officers hasn’t improved diversity. How do you fix it?

Police car lights. (Dan Scanlan/Florida Times-Union/TNS)
November 28, 2021

Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac knows his police department doesn’t look like the community it patrols.

The Middlesex County township is among the most diverse in the state, a place where a Little India business district, a Knights of Columbus lodge, a Hispanic heritage festival and a longtime African American club all have a home.

Yet Woodbridge’s police force is 80% white, twice the rate of the town’s population.

That’s a problem across New Jersey, where police departments are far less diverse than the people they police, an NJ Advance Media investigation found, raising questions about those departments’ ability to serve their communities.

These disparities have spurred calls for hiring more officers of color, including in Woodbridge, a town of 104,000 that saw its Asian, Hispanic and Black populations all grow over the last decade, and where whites are now in the minority.

But diversifying law enforcement has proven a tall order, even though the state regulates police hiring for about half of New Jersey’s police departments.

Like scores of towns, Woodbridge’s government hiring is overseen by the Civil Service Commission, which enforces a complicated set of rules meant to protect job seekers from public corruption.

As departments grapple with longstanding racial inequities, vocal critics — and equally vocal defenders — are debating whether those rules are hamstringing efforts to recruit minorities to a job that traditionally excluded them.

Last year, state lawmakers enacted reforms making it easier for civil service towns to bring in minority officers. In August, Woodbridge approved those changes, though the police force’s rank and file initially came out against them, charging they would create an unfair playing field and upend decades of hiring practices.

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“The police force should look like the township,” McCormac said. The current rules work “except when it doesn’t diversify your police force and make it look like the town,” he said.

Civil service towns use standardized test scores to select the best candidates for job openings or promotions. The other half of police departments — so-called chief’s towns — are not bound by civil service rules, allowing them to hire however they see fit.

Experts say there are a myriad of reasons why police forces aren’t more diverse. Police need to do better recruiting minority candidates and making officers of color feel welcome in their departments. There are challenges in attracting applicants from underrepresented communities, who may distrust police and be unlikely to consider the job. And hiring decisions still rest in the hands of police brass who often are, like their departments, overwhelming white.

But the civil service brings its own set of hurdles for would-be officers of color, according to activists, academics and former and current law enforcement officials.

Using public records requests, NJ Advance Media obtained the demographic breakdown of police departments covering 80% of the state’s municipalities. Of 308 local departments that showed racial disparities, 117 were part of the civil service. That included 12 of the top 25 most disparate departments, among them Bridgeton, Pennsauken, North Brunswick and Rahway.

One civil service town — 11-officer South Toms River — had an all-white force, though the Ocean County borough is 29% Hispanic and 15% Black.

Frustration over the process is legion.

Take Bradley Downing, a retired biracial Roselle police lieutenant who won a $1.2 million civil rights lawsuit in 2018 after his boss refused to promote him to captain, despite scoring the highest on the promotion exam. He triumphed in court, but only after investing several years of stress, $65,000 of his own money and seeing turmoil in his personal life amid the strain.

“I don’t think he had a problem with minorities as long as they stayed at a certain point,” Downing said of his former police chief. “It’s that old adage, ‘I don’t have a problem with black people as long as they don’t live next to me, as long as they don’t date my sister.’”

Or there’s Dalton Price, a retired Paterson lieutenant who helped found the Bronze Shields of Passaic County, a fraternal organization of black police officers. He said that for years, he believed civil service was the best way for people of color to join the ranks of police forces, because it protected them from bias in hiring.

Today, he is not so sure.

Chief’s towns have more flexibility to address the problem, as a generation of leadership skeptical of the need for diversity gives way to one that embraces it, Dalton said.

“A town that is seriously looking at bringing in minorities, if they are serious about it, they can do it,” Dalton said.

New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission was established in 1908 as a Progressive-era attempt to ensure hiring was done on merit and not who you know. Potential recruits are ranked based on test scores and military veterans are given the first shot at job openings.

In filling a post, police chiefs follow the “rule of three,” picking from the top three candidates as ranked by the Civil Service Commission. But law enforcement officials and experts say those rules still have loopholes that allow chiefs to hire their preferred candidates, regardless of test scores.

“The good ol’ boy network is alive and well in many civil service towns,” said Richard Rivera, a co-founder of the National Coalition of Latino Officers who is the police director of Penns Grove in Salem County.

Chiefs have found ways to exclude officers who score well on the exam, often during background checks, according to people familiar with the process. Experts say this can disproportionately impact candidates of color since they often come from communities with histories of over-policing.

“The background process is the loophole. It’s very subjective,” said Harrison Dillard, a former sergeant in the Morris County Prosecutors Office and an outspoken critic of police hiring. “They can get rid of you for too many parking tickets. It is so easy to get rid of people.”

Then there’s the psychological evaluation, meant to judge whether a candidate is suited for police work. A negative evaluation can torpedo candidates without them ever finding out why.

“You can play the system,” said Ivonne Roman, former chief of police in Newark. “If someone is connected and they’re at the bottom, you can believe the department will find a way to get to them.”

That often serves as a detriment to minority job seekers trying to break into policing.

“Most of us minority officers are first generation,” said Dillard, who is Black. “We don’t have someone to tell us, ‘Say this, dress like this.’”

Data from the most recent Civil Service hiring list suggests minority hiring continues to fall short. The state’s 2020 list comprises nearly 20,000 candidates, with the pool far more diverse than the officers who were ultimately hired that year.

Some 60% of police hired off the 2020 list were white, while only 43% of those eligible were. That means other racial and ethnic groups were hired at disproportionately low rates.

For example, 21% of eligible candidates were Black, but only 16% of officers hired were. Only 22% of officers hired are Hispanic, while 34% of those eligible were. Asians made up 3% of the pool and 2% of the hires.

The Civil Service Commission acknowledged disparities but said they reflected one year of hiring during a historic pandemic. The commission compiles a new list of potential hires about every two to three years, leaving time for those numbers to pick up, officials said. The previous civil service list, compiled in 2017, saw hiring much more representative of the pool of candidates.

The commission says that while it oversees testing, hiring is ultimately up to police chiefs and the rule of three.

“Until the law changes, there’s really nothing we can do because our charge is executing the law as it is written,” said Allison Chris Myers, who oversees the commission’s division of appeals and regulatory affairs.

Some police departments charge the rules are too stringent, while others feel they’re not restrictive enough. Either way, many chiefs say the ranking system makes it more difficult to attract and recruit minorities.

“You want a well-rounded candidate who sometimes has a very diverse background that doesn’t come out on a list of best test takers,” said John Zebrowski, the president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police and the chief of the Sayreville Police Department, where 89% of officers were white.

The chiefs association lobbied for last year’s reforms, which took effect this summer. Under them, towns can hire police academy graduates directly, without testing. The bill passed with just one no vote, with its sponsors saying the change would remove barriers for officers of color.

Assemblyman Parker Space, the lone vote of opposition, warned of lowering the standards for police officers at a time when the state has been trying to increase them.

“All types of government positions in New Jersey require prospective candidates to take the Civil Service test in order to get hired,” Space, R-Sussex, said in a statement. “With all that has happened in this country in the last [17]-plus months, I can’t see why prospective police officers should be excluded.”

The civil service system has its defenders, including Trenton’s acting police director, Steve Wilson, a former lieutenant who is Black.

“I am a minority, and the civil service exam is not biased in any way,” Wilson said, adding that those who study hard do well. “Everybody has an opportunity to do that.”

The changes have been controversial in many communities, which must vote to enact them. In Woodbridge, the proposal stalled months before being enacted this summer, after the local police officers’ union initially publicly opposed it.

In April, the Woodbridge Policemen’s Benevolent Association charged the reforms would hurt veterans, who are given preference in hiring under civil service rules. The union took to social media to issue an “urgent” warning about the potential changes.

“In layman’s terms, the resolution means the township can pick someone they want and give them a police job, exempting them from the civil service list,” the union wrote. “We can’t begin to explain the negative implications this could have on the Police Department moving forward.”

James Distelcamp, the union’s president, did not return requests for comment. Woodbridge Council President Brian Small, a retired township police officer, also did not respond.

The resolution was ultimately adopted Aug. 3 by the township council, which voted without discussion. It contained language that made clear veterans would continue to have priority in hiring, saying they will be hired before any alternate process candidate is considered.

Newark has also raised concerns about the new law, arguing it could be exploited by suburban departments to poach officers of color from diverse, urban departments.

Traditionally, municipalities shoulder the expense of training their officers, hiring candidates who place well on the civil service test and sending them to the academy. Without the testing requirement, it will be easier for suburban departments to offer jobs to Newark cops, who the city paid to train, Newark officials say.

“We anticipate a potential mass exodus of city officers looking for higher salaries, and a fraction of the work,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara wrote in a recent op-ed.

Yet Camden County Police, an urban department that patrols the city of Camden, is welcoming the reforms with open arms — and testing just how far they go.

In September, Camden sent a class of about 45 recruits to the police academy, though they did not take the civil service test.

But the commission warns that approach may not pass legal muster.

“We certainly don’t endorse that,” said Myers, the regulatory division chief. “Because it would be contradictory to our existing law and rule.”

Still, Camden officials say they believe they are on solid ground, and they are moving forward.

Chief Gabriel Rodriguez said the civil service exam has proven a detriment to attracting candidates from the community.

“I was fortunate enough to do well on the exam,” said Rodriguez, a Camden native. “There were a lot of people that I grew up with, that I played with, who didn’t get that opportunity.”

Camden County Police have experimented before with efforts to hire outside the typical civil service process. Under a pilot program, the department allows recruits to work up the ladder of police duties, starting as special officers with limited powers and eventually becoming full-fledged patrol officers.

Officer Vidal Rivera, a Camden native who began as a civilian in the police department’s surveillance center, said that job made him realize he had what it takes to be a cop.

What pushed him? “The interactions I had with the officers up there,” said Rivera, who is Puerto Rican and Black. “The drive for it. Them reassuring me I could do the job, overall be a good officer.”


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