DAYTON — Zachary Williams is a 21-year-old black Wayne High School grad who wants nothing more than to be a Dayton police officer or firefighter.
He’s one of 225 black applicants who took the November police entrance exam now at the center of a dispute between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice.
His test results are pending the Justice Department’s demand that the city lower its passing score for a police exam to allow for a larger pool of black applicants, while the city argues it is trying to ensure it hires the most qualified candidates.
Dayton is in desperate need of black applicants like Williams.
There are roughly 650 Dayton police and firefighters and less than 40 are black in a city with 62,000 black residents. The fact a smaller percentage of blacks passed the police exam in November doesn’t help Dayton’s chances of improving those numbers.
“It doesn’t surprise me the test results aren’t different and it shouldn’t surprise anyone,” said Randy Beane, police union president. “Not enough African-Americans are taking the exam and we need to get in the schools and talk to kids about being in law enforcement. What we are doing here is the definition of insanity.”
Williams said he understands what the Justice Department is trying to accomplish, but he thinks it’s the wrong method and it’s keeping him from achieving his dream.
“You can’t blame the city for the lack of diversity,” Williams said. “This isn’t your normal 9 to 5 job and you have to want it. I don’t want to be in a department where I was hired because of my skin color. I want it because I earned it.”
Community leaders agree with Williams and said the Justice Department’s method stigmatizes blacks.
“I cannot make a legal judgment on the Justice Department’s method, but there are lots of instances where competent people test poorly,” said U.S. District Judge Walter H. Rice. “What can happen in these cases, minorities are incorrectly branded as less qualified when they are infinitely qualified.”
Keith Lander, chairman of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the lowering of the test score “is a slap in the face to black people.
“Black people are not dumb,” he said.
DOJ’s results lukewarm
The Justice Department’s method of forcing cities to diversify through litigation began in 1971 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled disparate racial impact violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The ruling stated if an entity could not provide a lawful reason why its hiring practices had a contrasting impact on races, it was in violation of federal law.
Justice Department officials have said almost all litigation related to racial disparities is triggered by an outside complaint.
They have refused to release the complainant’s name in Dayton’s case.
Since 1990 the Justice Department has filed 24 hiring discrimination lawsuits against cities and states from New Jersey to Los Angeles. In almost every case, cities or states settle with a consent decree — a binding agreement to change questionable practices.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in an e-mail Friday the goal of the lawsuits is to uphold the Civil Rights Act by removing “unnecessary barriers” in hiring practices. She added the Justice Department does not file lawsuits “based solely on the (diversity) numbers.”
“We only challenge examinations when we determine that the employer has failed to demonstrate the exam will do a good job of selecting qualified candidates,” she said.
The process has produced lukewarm results as many metropolitan law enforcement agencies in the country continue to struggle with diversity.
Chesapeake, Va., for example, agreed to settle its lawsuit in 2007 that claimed the math portion of its police entrance exam had a disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics because more failed than whites.
Chesapeake agreed to lower its cumulative passing score to 66 percent, below the widely accepted passing mark of 70 percent, and eliminated a cutoff score for the math section.
Since settling the lawsuit, Chesapeake has 46 black and 17 Hispanic officers in a force of 373. Of Chesapeake’s estimated 220,000 residents, 66,000 are black and less than 7,000 are Hispanic.
Stanard & Associates Inc., which produced Chesapeake’s test and others for cities around the country, defended its test in a letter to its customers in August.
“Despite the vast amount of research S&A has accumulated, documenting the relationship between (the test’s) content and the job of law enforcement officer ... the DOJ appears ready to combat usage of any selection instrument resulting in any amount of adverse impact against protected groups, even if the job-relatedness and validity of the (tests) have been established.”
Officials from Stanard & Associates did not return calls seeking comment.
Dayton, like Chesapeake, slightly lowered its passing marks and graded the roughly 1,100 police exams taken in November on a curve. Dayton proposed participants had to answer 57 of 86 (66 percent) questions correctly on one portion and 73 of 102 (72 percent) on the other.
The Justice Department rejected those thresholds and wants the scores slightly lowered, city attorney John Danish said, because not enough blacks (57 of 225) passed compared to whites (386 of 788).
Dayton hired Fire & Police Selection Inc., based in Folsom, Calif., at a cost of $150,000 to revamp its civil service exam. FPSI officials talked to police and firefighters about the skills needed to do the job before drawing up the exam.
A smaller percentage of blacks in Dayton passed FPSI’s test than Dayton’s internal exam in 2006. Officials from FPSI also did not return calls seeking comment.
Another hiring issue
Dayton’s next step once it clears the Justice Department’s hurdles could be to voters to approve a change in the way it hires employees.
The city’s charter mandates employees must be hired one at a time based on test performance from best to worst passing score, also called the Rule of One.
In 2006 one black applicant scored in the top 100 of the city’s police exam.
Many other cities allow a Rule of Three or 10, meaning they can look at a group of candidates and hire the best ones from the group.
Dayton Commissioner Dean Lovelace and leaders from the Dayton chapters of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other minority groups called for such a change last summer.
Lovelace said he is considering whether to have the issue placed on a ballot and has asked the city’s law department to draft a proposal.
His fellow commissioners said they are interested in discussing a change and Mayor Gary Leitzell said he would support it “if it benefits the majority of the citizens of the city of Dayton.”
Police and fire union officials said they would challenge a rule change.
“It comes to down to hiring the best person for the job,” Beane said.
Rice said changing the hiring rule is one of the biggest steps the city can take if it is serious about diversification.
“There is no difference in the competency of a person who is No. 1 and No. 10 on the hiring list,” he said. “Dayton needs a charter amendment like other jurisdictions who have rules of three, five or 10 so it can hire the employees that are the best benefit to the city.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2494 or lsullivan@DaytonDailyNews.com.
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