Police slow to broaden ranks

Baltimore County needs to promote minorities, critics say

Hiring is `difficult task'

May 08, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

When Richard Howard joined the Baltimore County Police Department in 1989, he knew that he would rise to a top rank. What he did not know then was that when he reached his goal -- Howard was promoted last month to lieutenant -- he would be the only minority among the department's 102 highest-ranking officers.

It has been three years since a minority group member has been counted among top supervisors, a group that includes the chief, colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants. County and department officials say that they are trying to correct the imbalance but that it will take time.

Minorities make up less than 1 percent of the command structure in Baltimore County, where blacks, Hispanics and Asians make up 21 percent of the population. Current and former officers say that presents problems for the department. It means that important policy decisions are made with minimal input from nonwhite supervisors, said Howard. Also, the lack of diversity makes attracting minority officers more difficult, which could be bad news for a department committed to community policing, a policy that encourages officers to become known in the neighborhoods they patrol.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Monday incorrectly stated the number of minority officers in the top five ranks of the Howard County Police Department. The correct number is four.
The Sun regrets the error.

"You can't have an all-white department patrolling a Hispanic community and an African-American community," said Detective Lawrence Thomas, president of the Blue Guardians, the union for minority officers.

Finally, the lack of diversity among commanders discourages minority officers from seeking promotions, Thomas said.

Chief Terrence B. Sheridan says the racial mix among the top brass has not adversely affected the way officers do their jobs.

"We are not at all isolated from the minority community," he said. "It is a difficult task to hire and keep people."

The department has 1,724 officers, 11 percent of whom are minorities. Officials also note that of the 814 officers hired since 1995, 14.3 percent have been minorities. But those percentages are not reflected in the department's top ranks.

The problem behind the scarcity of minority supervisors surfaced in 1978, when the U.S. Department of Justice sued the department for job discrimination. The case was settled two years later when the department agreed to make a better effort to hire minority officers. In the 1980s, officials created a task force of community leaders and policy officials to examine the recruitment strategy. More recently, the county has run radio advertisements, posted fliers at colleges, attended job fairs, all in an effort to attract more minorities.

Progress has been made, officials say, and that progress will manifest itself in more minority commanders. "We have a lot of people in the pipeline," said Col. M. Kim Ward, who is in charge of hiring for the department.

Department officials, who prefer to promote commanders from within, say it takes time for an officer to move up the ranks. "A person who wants to be [a high-ranking officer] now has to have been a part of the department 20 years ago," said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

But others say the department's promotion process makes moving up difficult for minorities. Everyone below the rank of chief must take written and oral exams. Only top scorers are promoted, but with few minorities taking the test for command-level jobs, the odds of their being promoted are slimmer. Officials have said that they are reluctant to abolish the tests.

Critics say the department -- fighting a reputation as being unwelcoming to minorities -- needs to develop creative ways to recruit and retain such officers, such as test preparation classes and aggressively recruiting officers to take the tests.

"I think if we don't do something dramatic, there will always be one person here, one person there," said retired Col. Johnny Whitehead, the last minority officer in leadership until he retired in September 1997.

Officials say former police Chief Cornelius J. Behan made increased diversity a priority. Behan -- who was chief from 1977 to 1993 -- said he recognized the need to address the issue after arriving in Baltimore County from the New York City Police Department.

"We made a tremendous effort. We brought the numbers up, never the way I would have liked," he said, adding that minorities made up about 9 percent of the force while he was chief.

Other Baltimore-area police departments have had more success diversifying their command structures:

In Baltimore City, 32 of the 148 officers in command posts -- 22 percent -- are minorities. Minorities make up about 70 percent of the city's population.

In Anne Arundel County, two of the 42 top leadership posts -- 5 percent -- are occupied by minorities, who make up 21 percent of the county's population.

In Howard County, two of the 21 officers in command jobs -- 10 percent -- are minorities. Minorities account for 25 percent of the population there.

In Montgomery County, five of 49 commanders -- 10 percent -- are minorities, who make up 37 percent of the population in the county.

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