When Baltimore County Police Capt. Andre Davis took command, late in 2010, of recruiting and hiring, he could see that efforts to bring in African-Americans had slipped. Background checks were not being completed on many applicants, and no effort was being made to see that black candidates showed up for physical and written exams.
He said he reformed those practices but acknowledges that it will take much more over many years to reverse a decades-long deficiency in minority hiring. In a county that is 26 percent African-American, the department is 11 percent black, a figure that has changed very little in years.
Davis, who now commands the Woodlawn precinct and is among the department's three highest-ranking African-Americans, praises the county's recent efforts but adds, "we've made no progress, that has already been made clear."
Now the U.S. Department of Justice wants answers. The agency has opened an investigation into possible violations of the Civil Rights Act in hiring African-Americans for entry-level uniformed positions in the Police and Fire departments.
The latest inquiry comes more than 30 years after the county settled a suit with the federal agency charging discrimination against blacks and women in all county hiring. It's been 14 years since the agency opened an inquiry into the Fire Department after a noose was placed in a black firefighter's gear. The Justice Department closed that inquiry in 2003 without filing charges.
No such blatant racist acts have been publicly alleged in this case, but under the Civil Rights Act, the Justice Department can conclude there has been a violation of the law without finding an intent to discriminate. It's more often a question of recruiting and hiring procedures and outcomes.
There are now 203 African-American officers in a Police Department of 1,858 men and women in uniform. African-American representation in the Fire Department is a bit higher at 15.6 percent: 156 black uniformed members out of 997.
The low numbers of black members are variously blamed on past administrations' lack of commitment to diversity, recent low turnover in the Police Department, and, in the Fire Department, a tendency to hire from volunteer fire companies, which are overwhelmingly white.
The County Council's lone black member, Kenneth N. Oliver of Randallstown, saw the problem in stark terms and said it exists in all county hiring.
"It's still a good-old-boy network … They're going to hire people who look like them," said Oliver, A Democrat, calling on County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to "take a stand, saying, 'I want it corrected and I want it corrected now.'"
Kamenetz, a fellow Democrat, has said that he considers it a "top priority" to have a government workforce that reflects the diversity of the county.
In an early response to the Justice Department, the county cited figures showing that between 2010 and 2011, more than 31 percent of police hires and more than 38 percent of Fire Department hires were minorities.
Compared with four area jurisdictions with significant African-American populations — Baltimore City and Prince George's, Howard and Anne Arundel counties — the Baltimore County Police Department has the lowest black membership when compared to the African-American population of the county. The Fire Department ranks second of the five jurisdictions in this comparison.
Glenn Blackwell, who recently retired as a fire director, one of the highest-ranking black members of the Fire Department, said much has changed for the better since he was hired nearly 30 years ago. Still, he said, "The department clearly needs to improve its results."
Jonathan Hart, who retired last month as a division chief, the top African-American in the Fire Department, said he was surprised when he heard about the Justice Department inquiry.
"My perception was the Fire Department was moving in the right direction," he said, acknowledging that in matters of race and discrimination, "your view always depends on where you sit or where you stand."
From where Charles Tiefer stands, the statistics don't look good for the county. A professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, Tiefer spent 16 years working for Congress on oversight of the Justice Department, including civil rights investigations. In his view, the county "has some explaining to do."
The county's African-American population and a government measure of the "available workforce" that is black both stand at about 26 percent. Given those figures, Tiefer said any percentage of African-American membership in those departments below 20 percent would raise red flags.
The police figure of 10.9 percent "is striking. It's so out of line," Tiefer said.
Sherrilyn Ifill, a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, said, "The onus will be on the county at this point to offer an explanation as to why those numbers seem to be so impoverished."