ACLU Alleges African Americans Discriminated Against in Police Hiring

Aug 23, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all African Americans who feel they were unfairly passed over for hiring into the Pittsburgh police force.  The suit comes after two years of investigations, Right to Know requests and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings.

The suit was announced just days after the city praised the most diverse class of police recruits in decades where 2 of the 41 recruits where black, one was Hispanic, one was Asian and one was Native American. 

“I don’t think the city could have stated in a more obvious way the need for reforms here,” said Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak.  He said even with the city under close scrutinity for its hiring practices the best it could do was 5 percent African American in a city that is more than 20 percent black.

The suit contends the Pittsburgh Police Department has hired 368 officers since 2001 but only 14 of them were African American. 

Walczak said there is no one individual to point to as the person who is to blame.  He said the system must be fixed and he hopes that through the discovery process, he will learn more about how the process works, where it is breaking down, and where it can be improved.

“When we have been able to get a peek inside the sausage making factory what we have found is that there are 6, 7, 8 different steps in the process and at every step in the process there is some type of shenanigans going on,” said Walczak.  “There is a lot of discretion going on and it works to the disadvantage of African Americans.” 

Named as one of the plaintiffs is James Foster who says despite being ranked number three after the testing process he was passed over for inclusion in the recruit class.  That class included more than 40 cadets. 

The lawsuit contends that candidates who were known by members of the force received favorable treatment.  That treatment included being given answers to questions before they were asked, being excused from portions of the test, and being allowed to give sub-standard performance for full credit on the physical examinations.

“There needs to be a remedy,” said Walczak, “exactly what that remedy looks like is I’m sure is going to be the product of lots and lots of discussion.  At this point we want to break down the current system and rebuild it.”

The lawsuit asks for a permanent injunction to halt the department’s current hiring process, to correct the effects of its discriminatory policies and practices; and to instate plaintiffs James Foster and Mike Sharp as officers with back pay.  More names could be added as others in the class step forward.

Walczak says if the case goes to trial it could take years before it gets to a jury.  However he says it is possible that a resolution will be reached before going to court.

The mayor’s office has not been available for comment on the suit.