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."

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.

"They're nothing but interrogations," says Charlie Adams, who worked in the background unit in the late 1990s. "The background investigation becomes very tense and hostile, and the interview is a full-on interrogation. The people in charge of background are culturally conditioned to weed out someone who may not fit with their perception of an officer, and often that can come down to color."

The issue almost always comes up at regular Police Community Relations Council meetings between cops and citizens. At those meetings, community members, many of whom are black, constantly argue that candidates of color have to live up to a higher standard. At a meeting on April 19, two Minneapolis cops gave a presentation on the hiring process. One revelation that emerged from the gathering: As it stands now, the 13-member background unit of the MPD does not include even a single African American officer.

Interim Chief Tim Dolan, answering allegations that most of what was found in background checks was used against officers of color in the psych exam, conceded that there might be a bias. "Those things shouldn't come into play," Dolan offered.

Deputy Chief Harris, for his part, insists that the psychological exams, done by an Illinois-based firm, are steadfastly objective. "They don't base questions off the background check," Harris notes, adding that the questions are preordained. "There's a perception of bias according to race, but the numbers of who passes and who doesn't don't indicate a disparity." (The firm, Campion, Barrow and Associates, has come under fire before for alleged bias.)

But Ron Jones isn't so sure. By nearly all accounts, Jones would be a good fit for the department—Adams even worked with him at the State Fair last August and heartily endorsed his hiring.

Still, some things came up in the background check that Jones fears might have sealed his fate, even though he technically passed that part of his hiring process. For starters, he couldn't recall specifically when he had dropped out of school in Arizona and returned to a law-enforcement program in Virginia in the 1970s. There was a gap in his employment history when he was a keyboardist in a nationally touring R&B band. And Jones, who has four children, admits that there was a time when he missed some child support payments. He also claims that some of his answers regarding hypothetical police situations drew the response, "You're too by-the-book; you've got to quit thinking like a cop."

Mostly, though, Jones points to the fact that he was involved in a successful lawsuit in the mid-1990s against the Minnesota Police Recruiting System, an organization that screens recruits for suburban police departments in the metro, which was accused of racial bias. He believes that episode, coupled with his tight relationship with Bill McManus (who was Jones's supervisor for three years in D.C.), played a role in the outcome of his application. "Mac was unpopular in parts of the department, and now he's gone," Jones says. "Maybe they just looked at me and said, 'We don't want a troublemaker.'"

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