James Foster thought his work in behavioral health and his experiences as an African-American growing up in the East End would make him a good candidate for Pittsburgh's police force.
He scored high on a civil service exam, passed a physical fitness test and was placed on a list of candidates to join the police training academy in 2011.
But, Mr. Foster said, he was "devastated" when the city unexpectedly sent him a letter telling him he was no longer eligible for the job.
"My heart dropped," said Mr. Foster, who is one of two plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday accusing the Pittsburgh police bureau of employing hiring practices that systematically discriminate against minorities. "I put so much time and effort into showcasing that I am a qualified applicant and I can do a great job being a police officer in the city of Pittsburgh."
Blacks represent less than 16 percent of the 870-member police force in a city that is more than 25 percent black, according to bureau statistics. More than 83 percent of officers are white, compared to 68 percent of city-dwellers. The bureau has hired 368 police officers since 2001, just 14 of whom are black, the suit notes.
The disparity is a result of long-standing problems in a screening and hiring process that "injects standard-less subjectivity, nepotism and cronyism into the decision-making" to exclude qualified minorities, according to the lawsuit. The ACLU is seeking class-action status.
"In a city that is 26 percent African-American, it is unconscionable for a police force to be hiring African-Americans at a rate of 3 to 4 percent," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Our goal is to break down this process and restore it so that everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, has an equal shot at becoming a city police officer."
Hiring is based on written and oral civil service tests and the bureau selects candidates based on those who score the highest. Candidates who pass background checks, and physical fitness and polygraph tests then go through what the suit describes as the "chief's roundtable" in which command staff review their files.
The ACLU says candidates' photos are circulated at this stage, to the detriment of minority candidates. City spokeswoman Joanna Doven said photos are not part of this stage but declined further comment.
Mr. Foster and another plaintiff, Mike Sharp, a police officer who works for different municipalities, say they were two of three minorities overlooked during the final phase of the hiring process in favor of what the suit describes as less qualified white applicants.
White candidates, it adds, were rejected at a lower rate.
In Mr. Foster's case, the police bureau said he had a "bad driving record" with at least nine moving violations and warrants for failing to respond to citations, the suit says. The bureau claimed he had been discharged by one employer for violating protocol and from another for failing to show up for training, the suit says.
"Those assertions are pretextual and false and thus do not justify Foster's rejection," according to the lawsuit.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dismissed the lawsuit as a "frivolous" publicity stunt by Mr. Walczak. He said his office recently made a push to recruit and retain minority candidates through outreach to community groups, visits to job fairs in other cities, national advertising and a partnership with Community College of Allegheny County, which offered civil service test prep courses.
Those efforts paid off this week, the mayor said, when the city began training its most diverse class of police recruits in more than a decade. The 41 cadets included five minorities: a black man, a black woman, an Indian woman, an Asian man and a Hispanic man.
Mr. Ravenstahl said the suit was an attempt to overshadow that progress and challenged the ACLU to find another police department in the region that has tried as extensively to recruit minorities.
Mr. Walczak acknowledged the city has been doing more outreach, but the breakdown of the recent class shows their efforts are not working.
City officials have said they struggle to get minorities interested in police work.
But Mr. Walczak said that's not true, pointing to statistics that show that 20 percent of those who signed up to take the civil service test in 2008 were minorities.
The city has said that far fewer minorities make the final cut because they don't show up to take the test, fail fitness or background checks or find other opportunities in the time it takes the city to put together an academy class.
Of the 36 recruits who entered the academy in 2011, based on the results of the 2008 test, just one was black. He later washed out after failing exams.
Among other recent city efforts to diversify the force was a plan to involve community members in the interview process, which had been limited to members of law enforcement. Community leaders praised the plan, which was scrapped when officials learned that a felon, still on probation, was among those selected to interview prospective officers.
The lawsuit says the oral interview process was flawed even before community members were ousted because interviewers took measures to help friends and family members score better.
"There has to be a remedy," Mr. Walczak said. "Exactly what that remedy looks like will be the result of lots and lots of discussions."