A federal lawsuit filed this morning by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union accuses the Pittsburgh Police Bureau of for years employing hiring practices that systematically discriminate against minorities.
Blacks represent less than 16 percent of the 870-member force in a city that is more than 25 percent black, according recent police bureau statistics. More than 83 percent of officers are white, compared to 68 percent of city residents.
According to the lawsuit, the disparity is a result of longstanding problems in the screening and hiring process that favors candidates with friends or family on the force and other subjective criteria.
"Although the screening and hiring process appears neutral on its face, as applied it causes substantial adverse impact on African Americans," according to the lawsuit.
The hiring process "injects standard-less subjectivity, nepotism and cronyism into the decision-making" that allows the police bureau to exclude qualified minorities in favor of white candidates, according to the lawsuit.
Hiring is based on written and oral civil service tests and the bureau selects its candidates based on those who score the highest. Candidates who pass both exams, a physical fitness test and background checks are then sent to the "chief's roundtable," in which candidates' files, including their photographs, are circulated among members of the command staff for further review, the lawsuit said.
This step, according to the lawsuit, has no objective standards and allows the brass to determine and consider race in choosing which candidates will be sent on to the city's police training academy.
City officials, asked for comment, said photos are not part of the chief's picks.
The ACLU says the bureau passed over three of the four minority candidates at this stage when the bureau was assembling a police academy class in 2011.
Of the 36 recruits who entered the academy that year, one was black. He later washed out after failing exams, officials have said.
The ACLU filed its suit on behalf of two black men, James Foster and Mike Sharp, who say they were among those who were wrongfully overlooked at this stage despite their qualifications and high ranking on the civil service exam.
The lawsuit also alleges widespread problems with the physical fitness and oral interview portion of the exam that favored white candidates.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on Wednesday dismissed the lawsuit as "frivolous" and said the city has taken many steps in recent years to better recruit and retain minority applicants.
Among the efforts was a plan to involve community members in the interview process, which had been limited to members of law enforcement. Community leaders had praised the plan, which was scrapped when officials learned that a felon, still on probation, was among those selected to interview prospective officers.
The ACLU's lawsuit was filed days after Mr. Ravenstahl announced the city had begun training its most diverse class of police recruits in more than a decade.
The 41 cadets who started training this week include five minorities: a black man, a black woman, an Indian woman, an Asian man and a Hispanic man.
Mr. Ravenstahl said the ACLU filed its suit in an effort to gain publicity and money. He challenged the organization to find another police department in the region that has tried as extensively to recruit minorities than Pittsburgh.