Public Safety Hiring Tests Challenged

Teacher & Employment Testing

FairTest Examiner - July 2007

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has ended a class action lawsuit challenging racially discriminatory police and firefighter civil service tests by requiring twenty cities, including Boston, to hire more minority candidates. Last year, a federal judge ruled that the state's exams were biased against African American and Hispanic applicants (see Examiner, August 2006). Job applicants had been ranked based on their test scores, and positions were offered first to those at the top of the list.

The settlement guarantees at least 66 minority applicants to be hired around the state and requires nearly $1.5 million in back pay to those who lost out on jobs. In addition, Massachusetts has developed a new "state of the art" exam which it says will be fairer to minorities. "Our goal was to secure an exam that actually predicts job performance . . . so minorities would have a reasonable shot of doing as well," explained Harold Lichten, the attorney who filed the suit. The state will cover plaintiffs' legal fees.

Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued New York City's Fire Department, claiming its hiring exam discriminates against minority candidates. At present, the city's firefighting workforce is more than 90% white. In contrast, 57% of Los Angeles firefighters are members of minority groups as are 51% in Philadelphia.

DOJ specifically challenged two multiple-choice tests used to rank candidates. Only those with top scores, far above the passing mark, are offered jobs. Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ Civil Rights Division explained, "The city's testing practices do not select the firefighter applicants who will best perform their important public safety mission, while disproportionately screening out large numbers of qualified black and Hispanic applicants." According to DOJ, "of 11,000 firefighters in all ranks, only about 3% are black and 4.5% are Hispanic" while more than a third of the New York City police force is non-white.

The suit responded to complaints brought by the Vulcan Society, a group of African American firefighters, who are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Minority leaders have long cited discriminatory hiring and promotion practices in the NYC Fire Department, which now employs only 335 African American firefighters, spread among the city's 221 fire stations.

DOJ seeks a court order ending discriminatory testing as well as "remedial relief" for those harmed by the use of faulty examinations. The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.