PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal class action lawsuit today against the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (BOP) to force the department to end its discriminatory hiring practices. According to results of a Right to Know Law request, since 2001 the Bureau of Police has hired 368 officers, only 14 of whom are African-American.

According to the lawsuit, the low number of African-American hires stems from entrenched problems with the screening and hiring process, including favoritism toward applicants with family or friends who are already police officers and decisions based on purely subjective criteria.

"Police departments across the country have recognized that having a police force that reflects the makeup of the community it serves is critical. It's sad that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police has failed to keep pace and instead uses a selection process that undermines minority applicants," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The hiring process for police officer recruits requires candidates to complete and pass a two-part civil service exam with written and oral components. In 2008-09, minorities failed the test at a rate of 13.8 per cent versus 2.8 per cent for whites. The oral component, which is weighted to be 60 per cent of the total score, is judged by a panel made up of three BOP personnel.

According to the lawsuit, candidates known to the panelists or other members of the force received favorable treatment - including at times obtaining the scenarios and correct answers in advance of the exam. Some panelists ranked African-Americans lower during the oral exam based on how the candidates looked, dressed, or spoke rather than the objective criteria provided for scoring.

African-American candidates ran into similar problems while taking the fitness exam. Proctors often favored white candidates by crediting sit-ups that did not meet the standard and running alongside preferred candidates and cheering them on.

Minority applicants were also disqualified at a disproportionately higher rate for failing background checks and polygraph tests. The final list of candidates who pass the exams is sent to the Chief's Roundtable, a process in which candidates' files, including their photographs, are circulated among members of the BOP command staff. There are no standards or guidelines for this review, and participants can reject a qualified candidate for any reason. For the 2011 class, three of the four minority candidates were passed over. In contrast, only 7 of the 57 white candidates were rejected. Rejected candidates are not allowed to appeal.

The lead plaintiff is James Foster, an African-American college graduate who has worked as a service coordinator for a company providing assistance to mentally disabled clients. He was number 3 on the certified list of officers sent to the Chief's Roundtable in 2011, but was passed over. At least 32 white applicants ranked lower on the list were offered positions.

Another qualified minority candidate who was passed over at the Chief's Roundtable stage was Mike Sharp, a 2007 graduate of the Police Training Academy at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and who has been and currently is a police officer in various local police departments. He was number 11 on the certified list but was not selected even though 49 offers were made, only one of which was to an African-American recruit.

Asked why he sought the job, Foster said, "A police officer job creates a wonderful opportunity to give back to the community and there needs to be a level playing field for qualified African-American applicants to join the Pittsburgh police force."

Since 2001, only 3.8% of new officers hired were African-American. When considering hires since 2007, the number drops to 2.7% African-American officers. Pittsburgh's African-American population is 26.1%, according to the 2010 census.

"There is simply no credible explanation or justification for hiring only 3% racial minorities for a city as diverse as Pittsburgh," said Witold Walczak, ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director. "Our investigation shows that every stage of the selection process involves shenanigans that hurt minority applicants."

The lawsuit asks for a permanent injunction to halt the department's current hiring process, including its oral and written exams and Chief's Roundtable; to correct the effects of its discriminatory policies and practices; and to instate plaintiffs James Foster and Mike Sharp as officers with back pay.

The case is Foster, et al. v. City of Pittsburgh. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Witold Walczak and Sara Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The ACLU expects to add a law firm in the near future.