Psyched Out

Is the MPD's hiring process skewed against minority applicants?

Not quite a year ago, Ron Jones thought he was on an easy path to get back into law enforcement full-time. The 48-year-old had put a 16-year career—10 years as a sworn patrol officer—on hold recently, but had been persuaded by a friend to look into joining the Minneapolis Police Department. Jones, who had originally been a cop in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., figured the move would be relatively effortless—he was already licensed to be a peace officer in the state of Minnesota, and a series of security jobs and work as an EMT had kept him sharp in recent years.

More than that, his timing seemed fortuitous. After budget cuts had forced some downsizing, city leaders and MPD brass were finally talking about beefing up the department's ranks. And Jones, who lives in Edina, had another thing going in his favor: He is African American. "Diversifying" the police force had become a buzzword for the mayor and City Council members during last year's city election campaigns, and all signs indicated that Jones's friend, then-Chief Bill McManus, was serious about recruiting people of color to the ranks. By June, Jones had passed a physical, and—given his background, race, and notable connection—seemed a shoo-in to don the blues of the MPD.

Now, however, Jones is persona non grata to the MPD. "As far as I know, I'm totally disqualified," Jones says, betraying bewilderment rather than bitterness. "I'm upset that I got to this point only to suddenly have it not work out."

What's wrong with this picture? Despite 16 years of law enforcement experience and friends in high places, Ron Jones wasn't good enough for the MPD.
Jayme Halbritter
What's wrong with this picture? Despite 16 years of law enforcement experience and friends in high places, Ron Jones wasn't good enough for the MPD.

Jones's troubles began in February, when he and about 15 other MPD candidates were summoned to the Third Precinct station in south Minneapolis. There, the so-called "contingent hires" took a psychological exam—required by the department—that consisted of roughly 1,000 true/false and yes/no questions. After more than four hours, Jones then met with a psychologist from a firm hired by the MPD to go through further questioning. The whole process took eight hours. Jones failed the psych exam. A month later, Jones went through a similar routine at the IDS building in downtown Minneapolis, and failed again.

"The psychologist told them I had given guarded answers," Jones says, admitting that there were some questions about his education and employment history whose answers he couldn't readily recall on the spot. And he cites some questions: Do you hear voices, do you love your mother and father, have you ever been angry? "What I don't understand is how a third party, based on questioning like that," Jones concludes, "can make a determination whether someone would be a good cop."

It's a question many have had in recent years, especially when it comes to potential minority hires. Every department does an extensive background check and psychological testing on job applicants, but the MPD's process is viewed by many inside and outside the department as being biased against persons of color. While Deputy Chief Don Harris, who is black, maintains that the numbers on who gets hired and who doesn't don't bear out that perception, others believe that at the very least, there are cultural issues that come into play between what are almost always white psychologists and black, Asian, Latino, or American Indian recruits.

"If a person of color has a couple blemishes," declares Sgt. Charlie Adams, an MPD vet speaking as a member of the Minneapolis Black Police Officers Association, "he's totally fucked. If a white guy comes in with some problems, or even a criminal record, he'll still get a chance to be on the force."

Numbers from the latest class of 17 potential cops to enter the police academy just last month may bear this out. Though seven blacks and two Hispanics made the cut, five potential hires failed the initial psych exam. Of those, one was a white female and four—including Ron Jones—were black males.

Though the eligibility requirements to be a Minneapolis police officer are relatively pro forma, nearly everyone familiar with the hiring process says it's complicated. Initially, the candidate must have attained a two-year or four-year law enforcement or criminal justice degree. Any applicant must be a citizen of the United States and have a felony-free record.

The MPD pulls candidates from four different pools, including new recruits and "lateral hires" from other departments. The process can take months before someone is hired for training in the academy. There is a written test, an oral test, a "fitness assessment," drug screening, psychological examinations, and an extensive background check. According to MPD records, a recruit cannot be excluded because of race, color, creed, sex, or marital status, in accordance with a state statute.

But critics point to the background check, done by an MPD "background unit" made up of current officers, as being unduly harsh. In that part of the hiring process, background investigators look at things like arrest records, education and employment history, credit reports, and even grades and places of residence. They are painfully thorough investigations—and, some say, even more exhaustive when it comes to non-white candidates.

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