Advocates for more minority police leadership say that the last round of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department promotions was a slap in the face – and a sign that the promotions process isn’t working.
“Promotional exams like this are further destroying the already dismal morale of this department, especially among its senior African-American officers,” said Sergeant Darren Wilson, president of the Ethical Society of Police.
Out of 19 promotions, the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners promoted two African Americans on June 19. The officers earned two of the four lieutenant positions. However, out of 15 sergeant promotions, none were African-American.
In January, African Americans had a bigger presence in promotions. African Americans landed seven out of 17 open positions, including assistant chief of police, two majors, one lieutenant and three sergeants.
Overall, African Americans – both men and women – have a harder time getting into positions of leadership on the force, according to department demographics. Black male officers lag behind their white male counterparts in the percentage of those who hold a rank of sergeant or above. For black males, 18 percent hold such rank compared to 25 percent of white males. For black female officers, the percentage is lower. About 16.6 percent of black females rise to a higher rank compared to 24.6 percent of white female officers.
Wilson and Police Chief Sam Dotson agree that one of the biggest problems is recruitment. African Americans make up about 33 percent of the 1,300 police officers, which is disproportionate to the city’s population of 48 percent African-American.
Dotson met with members of the Ethical Society and the community last week to talk about their concerns. Dotson said he is open to hearing about changes that could be made to the process before the next round of testing for promotions this fall.
“Everything has an up side and a down side,” Dotson said about different testing options. “You just have to be as thoughtful as you can. It goes back to the root. If we had more African Americans in the department, then you would have more African Americans in the position to be promoted.”
Former police officer Anthony Shahid said the African-American community does not trust the police department, and that’s why there’s such a low representation on the force. And the recent promotions – particularly hiring no new African-American sergeants – will only re-enforce this perception, he said.
“Sergeants have a special role in the community,” Shahid said. “They are the first point of leadership that the community contacts in times of need. It’s common sense to have African Americans in that position – people who would be sensitive to the particular needs and culture of our community.”
However, police commissioners would have set themselves up for a lawsuit if they ignored the promotions process to hire more African-American sergeants, Dotson said. Depending on their testing scores, officers get put into clusters of A, B or C – A being the highest. According to department policy, the Board of Police Commissioners must select officers from the clusters in order. Under former Police Chief Clarence Harmon, the department lost a lawsuit for jumping to lower clusters to promote African Americans.
In this round of promotions for sergeants, there were six candidates in the A cluster and two were African-American. In the B cluster, there were 17 names and only one candidate was African-American. All three of these African Americans in A or B clusters were promoted to sergeants in January, leaving only white candidates in June.
However in the C cluster, eight African Americans were eligible out of 27 names. This list expired on June 30, and now all the officers in the C cluster have to retest.
When being tested, officers go before various panels of three people, who are a mix of trained internal and external police officers. They perform assessments on everything from crisis response to leadership skills. All panels had at least one African-American member.
Wilson said the test is too subjective, and the panelists who assess candidates bring in their own biases. The promotions test involves a written portion that accounts for 20 percent of the score. Yet the biggest part, 80 percent, is a structured interview, which Wilson said relies too much on the panelists’ favoritism.
Next week, Wilson said the Ethical Society will give Dotson a proposal with ways to make the process more objective in its scoring. Dotson said changes are already underway. In the spring, he hired a different consultant to manage and coordinate the promotions process.
Overall, Dotson said one of the things that’s important to him is to have a police department that represents the community. That’s a challenge, he said, and it’s reflected in the newest police academy class.
“I hired every eligible African American, and I could only find 10 to fill a class of 30,” he said. “We need more African Americans to apply, and we need to hire them when they do apply.”
Dotson said he has pressed the Human Resources Division to extend its recruitment outreach and attend all nearby college fairs, especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also said Major Ronnie Robinson, who was promoted in January, is leading community outreach in North St. Louis to strengthen the police’s relationship in those neighborhoods.
“The reality is the Metropolitan Police Department competes with Boeing, Anheuser Busch and Enterprise for qualified candidates,” Dotson said. “For a variety of reasons, some African Americans choose not to join law enforcement.”