Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Why does Philly have so few black police recruits?

Some who have been turned down blame the application process.

The Philadelphia Police Department, with more than 6,300 officers, is 57 percent white, 33 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian.
The Philadelphia Police Department, with more than 6,300 officers, is 57 percent white, 33 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

DAVID FISHER was startled late last year when he ran into a class of Police Academy recruits.

Of the 35 young people, he said, just one was African-American and the rest were white.

In May, Fisher, a 29-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, had a similar experience when he happened upon another academy class. He recalled seeing 16 whites, three blacks and one Latina.

The lack of racial diversity troubled Fisher, president of the National Black Police Association Greater Philadelphia, an advocacy organization for black officers.

"I said, 'Wow.' And I actually asked some questions. That's when I started wanting to see what the [recruiting] process was about and how I could help," said Fisher, who is detailed to the District Attorney's Office.

In April, Fisher's concerns over the dearth of black recruits was echoed by Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who told City Council that finding African-American officers had become more difficult, in part because of national news reports of black men being killed by police.

"It's not a day that goes by that you don't see something negative about what's occurring in policing somewhere in the country," testified Ramsey, who is African-American.

"When you look at the new hires, those numbers, in terms of African-Americans in particular, are lower now," he said.

Ramsey, who said he has visited colleges to recruit, made the observation a week before Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while in Baltimore police custody, touching off fiery riots and the arrests of six Baltimore cops.

Although Fisher said he agrees with Ramsey that negative media attention about police is impacting minority recruitment, he believes the problem runs much deeper, and may be linked to new recruitment policies.

Fisher noted that of 70 recruits scheduled to graduate from the Police Academy in the next two weeks, only eight to 10 of them are black.

Requiring recruits to pass a polygraph test and have 60 college credit hours - both Ramsey's policies - could be contributing to the falling number of blacks making it to the Police Academy, Fisher said.

"Then you have many minorities in a hold status until they correct issues such as poor credit and school-loan defaults," he added.

Malik Aziz, president of the National Black Police Association, said he agreed that the policies were detrimental to diversity, as are what he called "subjective" background checks and psychological tests.

Blacks with college degrees don't tend to gravitate to policing as a profession, Aziz and Fisher said, and those who do apply tend to fail polygraph and psychological exams at higher rates than whites.

By the numbers

The Police Department, with more than 6,300 officers, is 57 percent white, 33 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian, according to Ramsey, who noted recently that the department was operating with 213 fewer officers than it is budgeted to have.

As of 2013, the city's population was 36.3 percent white, 44.2 percent black, 13.3 percent Latino and 6.9 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Based on new hires, the number of white officers is likely to increase, Ramsey said.

In addition to the negative media attention that has made policing unattractive to minority recruits, Ramsey attributed the shift in numbers to potential recruits' inability to pass the battery of tests to become an officer, concerns about the city's ability to offer a pension and to the numbers of officers lost through the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, also known as DROP.

But Aziz, high-ranking chief executive of a top 10 law-enforcement agency, attributed the problem to Philadelphia's recruiting methods.

"Chuck Ramsey, I know him," he said. "He's a great commissioner. He's one of the best chiefs in the nation. Still, you can be the best chief in the nation and not perform well in certain categories.

"His recruiting methods are falling short. They are not where they need to be."

John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said the department's hiring practices hurt applicants of all colors and need to be revamped.

"This has been a problem that we've been trying to address for the last few years," McNesby said. "Whether it's the college credits, whether it's the psychological, whether it's the polygraph or a combination of all - we're losing out on a lot of good people who could be cops."

Test shock

Ayanna Holloway believes that she's one such person. In January 2014 she began applying for a job with the Police Department, finally following advice of friends who told her since childhood that she'd be a good police officer.

"I would have been the first person in our family to become a police officer," said Holloway, 22, of West Philadelphia, who quit her part-time job with the U.S. Postal Service to concentrate on the arduous application process.

Holloway on paper may appear to be an ideal candidate for the Police Department - she's a city resident who is physically fit, highly motivated and African-American.

But after completing the nearly yearlong application process, Holloway said, she was told that she had failed the psychological exam and would not be invited to the academy.

"I was shocked. My investigator called me the same day that I took the psych evaluation. I was like, 'Are you serious?' And she was like, 'Yeah.' I asked, 'Was there a reason I failed the test?' but she didn't say," said Holloway, who plans to study digital forensics at Chestnut Hill College this fall.

"I could see if I failed the physical test - but a psych test?" she said. "Basically, they're saying that you're crazy and you can't do this. That's ridiculous."

Also rejected was Danny Linton, a Willingboro, N.J., father of two young boys. He applied in March 2014 after earning a degree in communications from Florida Memorial University and working as a youth counselor.

Linton, 31, who is black, said he was not given a reason but believes that his rejection could be due to admitting that he once used an unprescribed pain medication after dental surgery.

"There is no reason why I didn't get in," Linton added. "If you're going to say that I didn't get in because of Motrin - I have no words for that. I think that's silly."

Linton said he has submitted another employment application to the department, even though he has questions about the process.

"I was bitter at first, but then I said, 'You know what? I can't be defeated that easily.' So I reapplied," he said.

"I think Commissioner Ramsey needs to dig deeper into the recruiters. Who's actually trying to recruit the people?"

Testy questions

Before being admitted into the city's Police Academy, applicants must complete an online application, pass a background check, successfully complete reading, physical fitness, polygraph and drug tests, and finally be examined by a state-licensed psychologist who administers a 500-question psychological test.

Psychological tests, which are relatively new as police-hiring tools, have been flagged by critics as potentially discriminatory toward minorities.

In May, for example, Pittsburgh pledged to overhaul its police-hiring process to address racial bias and reached a $1.6 million settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and black applicants who had been unfairly denied jobs.

The investigation that led to the settlement found subtle but consistent weeding out of black applicants through oral and written exams and polygraph and psychological tests, among other methods.

The ACLU found that although 20 percent of Pittsburgh police applicants from 2001 to 2014 were black, just 23 of 530 officers hired were black.

The Philadelphia Police Department did not respond to Daily News requests to provide the races of recruits admitted into the Police Academy and those who graduated over the last two years.

"They won't give that to you, they're probably embarrassed," Fisher said.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that any complaints it receives about the Philadelphia department's hiring practices are confidential.

The psychological test that local Pennsylvania police departments are required to give applicants is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, according to the Municipal Police Officers' Education and Training Commission.

Dr. M.L. Dantzker, a former Fort Worth, Texas, police officer who works as a criminal-justice and mental-health specialist, said that although he is no fan of the test, any bias toward minorities actually could be the result of who administers the test.

"I would want to know: Is it because of the scores on the test that the person was disqualified, or because the psychologist decided the person wasn't qualified?" he said. "That, to me, is where there might be an issue."

Fisher said he hopes that his organization will be able to discuss with Ramsey the department's recruiting polices and how they are impacting the goal of diversity.

"I disagree with Ramsey on the issue that we are not applying," Fisher said. "We are applying - we are not being accepted. And it has to be looked at as to why we are not being accepted."

One issue on which Ramsey and the critics of his recruiting efforts agree is that the job of finding black cops has become more difficult due to news from Ferguson; Staten Island; North Charleston, S.C.; Cleveland, and Baltimore.

"I talk to a lot of young black males and young black females, and they constantly say that they just don't like the police," Fisher said. "They see police in a negative light. Of all the things they want to be, police aren't one of them.It means we have a lot of work to do."