Several Teaneck police sergeants must retake their promotional exams and could ultimately face demotion because of the federal government's claim that New Jersey’s test process was discriminatory.
In August, New Jersey settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice that claimed the civil service test for police sergeants discriminated against African American and Hispanic candidates. Officials said the state was required to create a new exam. Last week, three newly promoted Teaneck sergeants were told their results would be thrown out, and their ranks changed to acting capacities with no job protections and uncertain career futures.
John Garland, a 17-year police veteran, was one of the three promoted to sergeant Aug. 16 based on his score on a 2008 state civil service exam. His score has now been tossed and Garland said the group has only three months to study for the new test in January. Regardless of his new score, priority will be given to a list of minority candidates who the federal government claimed were discriminated against by the first test, the settlement said.
“They’re trying to wind the clock back and say our promotions are no good,” Garland said Wednesday.
Police officers spend months studying for promotional exams, attending courses and study groups that last up to six hours a session. The test preparation carries a steep price tag, with courses costing as much as $3,000, officers said.
“We prepared for this test. It is well known within our profession that you need to start studying five months out for the test,” Garland said. “If anybody wanted to take the test prep and work their hardest, they could.”
Future tests could be modified, but penalizing officers who already passed the rigorous exam is wrong, he said.
The Justice Department claimed the written exam was not shown to be related to a sergeant’s job, however, police officials said the test focused on case law, management techniques and state guidelines governing officers.
Garland said every test has imperfections, but noted the material covered was relevant to police work.
“The tests we took were on job-related material that was available to all,” he said.
Federal officials cited a statistical analysis for 2000 to 2008 that showed 89 percent of white candidates who took the exam passed, compared to 77 percent of Hispanic candidates and 73 percent of African American candidates. According to the settlement, Teaneck is one of 13 police departments that must give priority consideration to 48 African American and 20 Hispanic candidates across the state.
The Justice Department used a “disparate impact” analysis, which is a term referring to an employment practice that isn’t intentionally discriminatory but has discriminatory results.
But the federal government’s goal of eliminating discrimination was lost on Patrick Forest, an African American police sergeant whose score was tossed.
Forest, a 16-year veteran of the Teaneck Police Department, was placed on a list of priority candidates for the next test, but he had already been promoted off the test the government claimed was discriminatory.
“I didn’t ask for this. I was placed on that list,” he said. “We all had the same opportunity.”
Police Chief Robert Wilson said the federal order was proposed under the settlement, but had not yet been reviewed by a federal judge. The state began enforcing it ahead of a planned "fairness hearing," he added.
“It was a shock to us that they were going to do it this way,” Wilson said of the state’s decision. “It’s hard to wrap your head around why this would occur in this way.”
A spokesman for the state’s Civil Service Commission, which administers the exam, could not immediately say why the federal order was acted on before the hearing. The state didn't admit liability in the settlement, court documents show.
The Township is bound by the state’s decision and can only promote the officers on a provisional basis, Wilson said.
The three impacted sergeants, Forest, Garland and Gerard Rosano, were promoted because they were qualified for the job, Wilson said.
“We promoted them because we felt they were viable candidates and we’d like them to stay in those positions,” he said.
The newly promoted sergeants are now in limbo, working as provisional supervisors and faced with a new test in January.
“It leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth like you just want to walk away from the job,” said Garland, who started in emergency services as a 15-year-old volunteer EMT. "We're collateral damage in this."
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division did not return calls for comment Wednesday.