Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson threw out a more than three-decades old promotions policy just days before a class of sergeants was to take standardized oral interviews to become lieutenants.
The change comes amid a looming U.S. Department of Justice inquiry into the county's hiring and promotions practices within the police and fire departments.
The change involves who interviews prospective candidates for promotion. Until now, interviews had been conducted by outside law enforcement personnel. Now, those interviews will be conducted by officials who work for Baltimore County.
"I have not determined the motivation of the administration as to why this change was instituted," said Cole Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4. "As far as the Department of Justice inquiry is concerned, if the county is doing this because of that then it appears they are doing this on their own."
A county police spokeswoman acknowledged that Department of Justice officials met with the county earlier this year. The change in the promotion interview process last week had more to do with Johnson's desire to make the department responsible for the selection of its leaders, she said.
"The chief has told me he has felt for a long time that it did not make sense to cede choosing our leaders to other law enforcement agencies," said Elise Armacost, a police spokeswoman.
"We don't even know what (the Department of Justice's) concerns are at this point," Armacost said. "Nonetheless, the continued diversification of our work force is a major goal for Baltimore County public safety."
The change in who gives the standardized interviews preceded an announcement Wednesday that the county Office of Human Resources plans to review the promotional processes for the county corrections, fire, police and sheriff departments.
Additional promotional exams will not be given until that summer review is completed over the summer.
The department currently uses a written test and a standardized oral interview to determine promotions.
For more than 30 years, the department has used a three-member panel composed of police officers from other agencies to conduct and score those interviews. It was the same process that Johnson himself navigated as he was promoted through ranks to colonel before then-County Executive Jim Smith appointed him police chief in 2007.
The use of sworn personnel from outside the county removed concerns of interview bias that could help or hinder any particular candidate's promotional opportunities, according to Weston.
Baltimore County continues to send its officers to assist other agencies with their own promotional interview processes.
"Everyone thought that was the most fair and impartial way to conduct the process," Weston said.
Armacost said the chief has harbored concerns about the process and contemplated changes since he was named chief.
The change Johnson instituted last week, days before the sergeants sat for their interviews, was to use a five-member panel comprised of four sworn county police personnel—one white female, two black males and one white male—and one black female civilian member—state Del. Adrienne Jones, who also works in the county's Human Resources office.
"Chief Johnson and the County Executive both believe that the quality of public safety is enhanced when our public safety agencies reflect the communities they protect," Armacost wrote in response to a follow up question.
Jones was the head of the county Office of Minority Affairs before County Executive Kevin Kamenetz named her deputy director of the county Office of Human Resources.
Kamenetz charged Jones at the time of her appointment with improving the county's recruitment of minorities.
"Like the sworn members of the oral exam board, (Jones) is a professional of the highest integrity. We know without question that she and the other panelists take this responsibility extremely seriously and will make sound decisions based on the qualifications of the candidates," Armacost wrote.
The panel does not, in the end, make the final decisions on promotions but scores each candidate based on benchmark answers, Armacost said.
"The oral test and the scoring process remain unchanged," she said.
Armacost pointed out that the department uses an internal interview process when selecting candidates for specialized units within the police department.
"It's a panel of internal personnel that makes those decisions and it's always worked well," Armacost said. "There's no reason why this shouldn't work well for promotional candidates."
Johnson said other departments also use an internal panel for their promotional interviews, Armacost said. The chief was unable to provide the names of some of those departments in follow-up interviews with Armacost.
The new policy raises concerns about bias for Weston.
"There are always concerns about relationships in terms of supervisors or that someone was an officer's training officer or even just heard something good or bad about an officer interviewing," Weston said of the change. "I don't see how this can be avoided."
This article has been corrected to note that Adrienne Jones is the only black female member of the new police department oral promotions examination board.