Is political interference returning to the selection process?
Despite rules and processes to limit improper political considerations in the police selection and promotion process, some recent examples are disheartening
Space doesn’t allow me to provide a detailed history recounting the political patronage and spoils system used in the earlier years of our profession to select and promote law enforcement officers. Let’s just say that through the years the civil service testing system has evolved in order to limit improper political considerations in the police selection and promotion process. The wording contained in the Massachusetts introduction essay to their civil service process says it succinctly:
“In 1884, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the Commonwealth’s civil service law. Massachusetts was the second state to pass such a statute. The fundamental purpose of the civil service system is “to guard against political considerations, favoritism, and bias in governmental employment decisions; when there are, in connection with personnel decisions, overtones of political control or objectives unrelated to merit standards or neutrally applied public policy.” Cambridge v. Civil Service Commission, 43 Mass. App. Ct. 300, 304 (1997).
In my opinion, we’ve let our guard down and political influence is slowly creeping back into determining who will protect and serve, and in what capacity. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
I recently created and administered a promotional examination testing process for the position of police sergeant in a small department of 42 sworn officers. The department’s union contract predetermined the parts and weights of the examination as being 50 percent for a written examination and 50 percent for an oral examination. I’ve never been in favor of predetermined parts and weights because the job task analysis the position should determine the type of examination process and the parts and weights. Points were also added at the end for “seniority” which I also am opposed to.
I couldn’t do anything about the contractual provisions, so I created and administered both parts of the test, graded it and provided the Chief of Police with a certified list from the highest scoring candidate (1) to the lowest scoring candidate (15). I was a little surprised when the Chief said, “Now the top candidates have to go before the Police Commission.”
When I asked the Chief what he meant, he explained that the police commission would interview the top four candidates — he had three openings for Sergeant — and choose from that list who would be promoted.
When for further explanation of the police commission’s role in the selection process, he told me the five members of the commission would ask each candidate questions and then decide who would get promoted. Further, that the police commission had been doing this for many years.
I was shocked! I asked to attend the next meeting of the police commission — the one prior to the promotions — and was put on their agenda. The police commission consisted of a real estate agent, a banker, the town manager, a local attorney, and a member of the clergy. I asked for and received the questions they were going to ask the candidates — all were “what would you do if?” situational questions.
In other words, it was another test. I informed the police commission that in my opinion what they were doing was in violation of the labor/management contract, and they could be putting the town in legal liability. Not only were they changing the parts and weights of the testing process, none of them was qualified to construct test questions or to grade candidate responses. My comments weren’t going over well with the commission and in deference to the Chief I didn’t say as much as I would have liked to.
The second example involves lateral entry into a department. It’s one thing to do a national search for a Chief of Police and bring an outsider into the department. Someone from Florida becomes a Chief in Connecticut and someone in Connecticut becomes a Chief of Police in Florida. Okay, I don’t like it, but I get the fact that the department head should be appointed by the mayor, city, or town manager. Most states have some type of civil service or state statute protection for a Chief of Police after he/she takes office to prevent political and other interference if the Chief is not playing ball with the local politicians. Let’s fact it, the Chief’s position requires a certain amount of politicking in order to get the police budget passed, etc.
That’s not what I consider problematic. What concerns me is the growing trend for a department to open up the promotional examination process for ranks such as Captain and Lieutenant to applicants for these positions statewide. This recently happened in a Connecticut town in which the Chief was ready to appoint a Deputy Chief from another town to be the Deputy Chief in his department (a position really equivalent to Assistant Chief of Police). Candidates from inside the department publicly approached the town council and the Chief’s choice from outside of the department was countermanded and an inside candidate was promoted. The entire process had the stench of political interference.
In order to get around civil service testing –to reach affirmative action goals, promote a favorite son or daughter, etc- departments now either use the word “assignment” instead of promotion or just invent a rank and appoint someone to it. Many cities and towns no longer test for the position of police detective and have removed “detective” from civil service protection. The Chief of Police merely designates an officer to be on “special assignment.” They get a gold badge that says detective, perform the duties of a detective, but can be removed from the “special assignment” position at the whim of the Chief of Police.
Another example is the term “Deputy Chief.” There is no civil service test for this rank — people are appointed to it. The rationale is that the rank is “outside of the union contract” and because it is part of management it is not subject to civil service testing. Advocates of this system point out that the Chief should be able to pick his/her management team. People opposed to this position want the position filled by competitive testing. Whichever side of the fence you’re on at least the Chief of Police usually selects from officers inside the department and not a board made up of business and community practitioners.
Some initial research I conducted indicates that if the position is part of the union contract-officer, sergeant. Lieutenant- the civil service testing process is used. If it is a non-union position in the department-Captain and above- many departments now “appoint” personnel to the position using a wide range of criteria not available to even freedom of information filings. I believe this has long term consequences to the individual career development of members of the department; morale; and organizational efficiency and effectiveness.
What Can Be Done?
Where are the O.W. Wilson’s in today’s era? What police leader will come forward and make this an issue of national importance? What is the position of the International Association of Chief’s of Police on merit testing for selection and promotion? Union officials need to become more vocal in this area and leverage their state legislatures to enact statutes insuring civil service protection for police selection and promotion. If not, we will slowly get back to the days when the ward bosses decided who would be a cop and who would supervise and manage them. I would be interested in hearing reader opinions as to whether this is a national issue or just confined to the Constitution State. What do you think?
Be safe out there!
Larry the Jet