Dayton ‘rule of one’ hiring practice questioned as police reforms sought

Three of the five working groups focused on police reforms in Dayton met on Tuesday and Wednesday. A fourth committee meets Friday. JIM NOELKER / STAFF
Three of the five working groups focused on police reforms in Dayton met on Tuesday and Wednesday. A fourth committee meets Friday. JIM NOELKER / STAFF

A long debated proposal to change the city of Dayton’s “rule of one” hiring practice has received renewed attention during efforts to make police reforms in the city.

Dayton hires job candidates for competitive positions in the order they score on exams. Dayton may be one of the only Ohio cities that has this policy, city officials say.

Other communities have less restrictive recruitment processes that allow hires to be selected from larger groups of top-scoring candidates.

Some community members say changing the rule would provide greater hiring flexibility to allow other valuable criteria to be considered, which could help boost diversity in the city’s workforce.

The rule of one is a “facially neutral” practice that unfortunately has had a disparate effect on minority candidates, said U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice, who is in favor of changing the policy.

“Remember in school, some of us were better at taking tests than others,” he said. “It has to be more than the test, because the test itself is inherently discriminatory — you need to build more into the selection process.”

But the city’s unions and other community members have supported the rule, claiming it ensures job candidates receive equal and fair treatment in the hiring process and has helped minority job-seekers obtain city employment.

To change the rule, Dayton voters would have to approve amending the city’s charter, officials say.

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Earlier this month, members of a committee focused on reforming the city of Dayton’s police recruiting process briefly discussed the rule of one and what it would take to change the policy.

The rule says the city must make job offers for all competitive and tested positions in the order of how candidates scored on their exams, as long as they achieved a passing score, said Ken Thomas, secretary and chief examiner of Dayton’s civil service division.

The rule of one applies to all competitive and tested positions within the city of Dayton, including the police department, he said.

Thomas said he believes the city and civil service has always had this process in place.

In the 1970s, Dayton used a “rule of three,” which allowed department managers to hire candidates they believed were the most qualified from the top-three scorers on city exams. City officials at the time said that helped improve minority hiring.

But the Dayton Fraternal Order of Police challenged the policy in court, and unions representing city employees argued that scrapping the rule of one was problematic because it could lead to cronyism and bias.

In 1976, the Second District Court of Appeals found that the rule of three was illegal under the city of Dayton’s charter.

Some citizens, elected leaders and other community members and groups have long advocated replacing the rule of one with a rule of three, five or another higher number.

Other Ohio cities use hiring formulas that allow managers to select candidates among larger groups of top scorers.

Columbus, for instance, uses a “banding process” in which candidates are put into groups based on their exam scores. Candidates in each group are considered equal to one another.

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Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she is open to exploring changing the rule of one, but that alone is not a “silver bullet” that would make the Dayton Police Department more reflective of the diverse community it serves.

Whaley, who is co-lead of the recruitment police reform group, said, “As is, the rule of one constrains civil service and (the police department) to choose candidates based primarily on the results of a written test, which cannot fully capture all it takes to be a great police officer.”

However, she said, the city also needs more diverse applicants, both in terms of race and gender, as well as candidates with varying educational backgrounds, previous work experiences and world views.

“Modifying civil service rules are only a piece in this larger effort,” she said.

Civil service staff and some police personnel said they do not believe the rule of one has been a barrier to improving the diversity in the police department.

They said the real issue has been attracting a sufficient number of diverse candidates.

The city currently exhausts the entire list of eligible candidates for police recruits, meaning that anyone who applies and passes all the required phases of testing and the pre-employment process eventually will be referred for hiring into the police academy, city officials said.

AFSCME Local 101, which represents more than 700 blue collar and clerical city employees, is now and always has been vehemently opposed to getting rid of the rule of one, said Ann Sulfridge, President of AFSCME DPSU Local 101.

Many members of Local 101 are minorities who likely never would have been hired without the rule, she said.

The rule protects the integrity of the city’s hiring process by eliminating bias, discrimination, cronyism and ensures applicants are hired based on their ability and knowledge in their testing field, Sulfridge said.

“The rule of one is effective, and there are certainly no downsides,” she said. “There are those who would prefer to pick and choose who they hire, and certainly a rule of five, seven or 12 would allow them to do that.”

Years ago, there were efforts to abolish the rule, and a proposal to change the hiring policy appeared on the local ballot, she said.

Sulfridge said AFSCME strongly opposed the proposal, and the citizens of Dayton wisely voted against it. She said changing the rule remains a terrible idea.

Chrisondra Goodwine, an attorney and a member of the recruitment working group, said she thinks there is an opportunity to change how job candidates are assessed and selected, so exam scores aren’t the only factor.

She said some people have test anxiety and other issues that might affect their scores and the city should consider alternative methods to demonstrate performance and knowledge beyond just written exams.

She said she would like a recruiting process that takes a fuller look at the candidates.

Judge Rice said he thinks changing the rule of one in the city charter would boost minority hiring in the fire and police departments. He said he hopes police reform committee members take a close look at the issue and recommend a charter modification.

“I think anything that gets you away from having to choose the number one person on the list with no discretion (is beneficial),” he said. “I think a rule of three or a rule of five would work.”

The rule of one puts candidates at a disadvantage who might be perfectly qualified for an open position but just do not test as well as their competitors, he said.

The city, Rice said, should consider changing the recruitment and exam process to include other measures to judge candidates, possibly such as interviews, psychological evaluations and reviews of candidates’ community contributions, accomplishments and awareness.

Rice said he thinks the rule of one isn’t a “hot-button” issue like it used to be years and decades ago.

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