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County Changes Police Promotions Exam as Federal Review Looms

New interview process aims to make the Baltimore County police more responsible, accountable for selecting its leaders.

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.

Justice May 16, 2012 at 05:09 AM
Did any of you ever walk this life with a different color face besides w....? You may see things somewhat different? I think it's called walking in someone else shoes only thing you can't get out of your own. Same song and dance but only to your tunes. Did anyone tell you there is much grey material in between? Justice
Red Dolphin May 16, 2012 at 10:09 AM
"walk in another man's shoes" ? sure I can see it from their perspective.. you cant be objective , you're claiming that not being white is a disadvantage "same song and dance but it to your tunes" you say ,You want separate "tunes" that is you want different standards ? we've already lowered the standards for your "tunes" its called " affirmative action " I dont know how old you are ,Justice,,,,,,,,,,are you familiar with affirmative action ? you see, blacks can score much lower in entrance exams for colleges, and other government jobs,,,, whereas a white person scoring slighty higher will be denied , is that what you call fair ? a " level playing field "? ...... you are implying that a white person cannot be objective about a black person when it comes to evaluating performance,,,,,,,,, this is not so,,,,,,,, it's the same ole song and dance alright,, excuses excuses
areal investigator May 17, 2012 at 12:05 AM
a real investigator! It is amazing how one sentence written by the author of this article sent so many into a panic. It's called touching a nerve.. The author wrote one sentence about a looming Department of Justice investigation and then all the fish in the pond took the bait. This article was about changing the interview process of a test. Nowhere in this article does it say anything about lowering standards or making a change because minorities need help (in fact there are several minorities who have been successful in the old system). But soooo many people believe any change is negative. Maybe that's not the case. Maybe there is something in the system that needs to be fixed or if not fixed re-evaluted, which could render better results. Does General Motors or Microsoft ask Chrysler and Apple to send a group of their employees to help them promote? The Answer is "Noooooo". Maybe Johnson does trust his in-house people to make sound decisions. But because everyone wants Johnson to be villianized, its easy to make this negative. Or is the real problem with the panel of in-house people? Because if that's the issue you are barking up the same tree as those people who need to see the President's birth certificate. Why would anyone allow an unvalidated process to continue? Its like knowing your food is laced with poison and continuing to eat it anyway. The bottom line is, things are changing in Baltimore County! Whether you like it or not. And some of you call yourselves police
Escariot May 17, 2012 at 11:46 AM
I think the supreme court answered that question when it ruled the Connecticut firefighters promotions were both valid and non-biased. Part of the problem resides with the fact that Eric Holder's justice department has conducted more of these inquiries and lawsuits than in the last 54 years of the justice department, and he has been on the losing side of almost all of his suits. Ask Indiana about their voter id laws and his lost cause there. Look at the wonderful results we have received from our "affirmative action" president that had neither the experience nor the capabilities to lead this great country after only a miniscule time in the senate.
I mean it May 21, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Why would anyone allow an unvalidated process to continue? ...Unvalidated processes continue all the time; it's the reason we have Equal Protection lawsuits at all. A large part of the problem is with the panel of in-house people, and just because "the government's doing it" does not make it legal. If the new process requires that one white female, two black males, one white male, and Adrienne Jones comprise those panels, then it looks, sounds, and smells like a quota. While it's too early to tell what the exact repercussions will be as far as who will be appointed and not appointed to that panel, there's at least an argument that those very requirements could constitute an Equal Protection violation. So, no, I don't think I'm barking up the wrong tree by voicing a constitutional challenge to a government policy. There are plenty of examples of the government acting inappropriately, and their actions by their very nature are held to a higher standard than those of private companies such as Microsoft and Chrysler and Apple. Things are changing in Baltimore County, and whether or not I like them, I demand that they be legal. Maybe Johnson does trust his own supervisors to make unbiased decisions about people they work with or hear about on a regular basis, but there's no question that the change is a diversity initiative when he explicitly says that he believes the quality of public service is enhanced when the agencies reflect the communities they protect.

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