Metro’s new police promotion system is only about a year old, but it’s already managed to make history. White officers, black officers and the unions that represent them have finally found common ground: they all hate the new policy, and accusations of favoritism are flying from both sides.
In the old days, accusations of promotional bias were much more common in the department’s minimal minority sect. For the nearly two-and-a-half decades the last promotion system was in place, it was best known for promoting a lot of white guys and ticking off a lot of black officers in the process. Under the policy, officers were promoted based solely on test scores. Those who had the highest combined scores on a written and videotaped assessment were the first in line for promotion. Police spokesman Don Aaron says Metro adopted the score-based system in the early 1990s to ensure that promotions were not politically influenced. With the revamped system, officers were tested, ranked and promoted accordingly.
It was fair—in theory. But few minorities made it to the top. In fact, no minorities were promoted from sergeant to lieutenant from 2000 until another new system was implemented in mid-2006. During that same time, only four of the 45 officers promoted higher than sergeant were minorities. Things got so bad that three police sergeants sued Metro government and Morris and McDaniel Inc., the contractor Metro hired to conduct the testing. The officers claim that test procedures are too subjective and that the process is unfair to minorities. The litigation is still pending.
Officers like Det. Reggie Miller, president of the Nashville chapter of the National Black Police Association, say the system gave good test-takers, rather than good leaders, a fast track to the department’s upper ranks. “If you go straight down the list, it doesn’t matter whether No. 8 has a bad attitude,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where, in his files, he’s got 12 excessive forces. Whose community do you want him in? You don’t want him in your community. I don’t want him in mine. But you have no choice [but to promote him], only because he’s No. 8.”
Despite decades of similar grumbling from other minority officers, Miller says talk of change didn’t come until an audit of the policy revealed that minorities had little to no chance of advancing their careers—ever. It was a mantra the black officers’ union had been preaching for years. But when minorities complained, Miller says the response was always the same: you just didn’t score high enough.
Last year, the Metro Civil Service Commission approved a policy that gave Police Chief Ronal Serpas the discretion to choose who to promote from a list of candidates who scored highest on a two-fold assessment. Now, the applicants’ names appear in alphabetical order, rather than by score rank. The system allows the chief to take officers’ past work performance into account in hopes of identifying those with the most leadership potential.
In addition, the department traded its videotaped assessments for live assessments conducted at a center where officers are evaluated on how they perform in real-life scenarios. While applicants still take a written test, the department ditched the controversial Morris and McDaniel version for the most minority-friendly exam it could find. The new Colorado-based vendor, CWH, is said to have a record of crafting tests that can increase the number of minorities moving up in the ranks—it’s a reputation that CWH president Chris Hornick gladly affirms. “In the 28 years I’ve been doing this work, we have never had a legal challenge to the testing we’ve done,” he says.
Thanks to the purported race-neutral exam, and the chief’s ability to pick and choose, hopes were high. The new policy would be more fair. More minorities would move up though the ranks. All this raucous debate about bias (real or perceived) would be soothed. And hopefully, the new system wouldn’t create more dissension.
But it did—starting with minority promotions. When it comes to diversity in the ranks, Miller says he doesn’t see much difference. Only four of the 25 officers promoted to sergeant and two of the 13 officers promoted to lieutenant have been minorities. Although six officers made captain, none were minorities. “This is the same number we probably would’ve got, even with the old system,” Miller says. “This system is not fixed.”
While he’s a fan of giving the chief more leeway, Miller says he wants Serpas to have more candidates to choose from. While the chief can now promote from a list of at least nine applicants for each open sergeant position, seven for lieutenant and six for captain, Miller wants each list increased to equal one-third of the total applicants for the position, with the highest scorers making the cut. He says the new system also should be altered to adjust candidates’ test scores to better reflect their career history, with points added for educational degrees, military service and years on the force.
The local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union that represents Metro officers, wants numerical weight added for seniority and education as well. But that’s where the agreement ends. The union’s attorney, Jack Byrd, says the organization is wary of giving the chief discretion when promoting officers. “It opens itself up to cronyism and favoritism,” he says. “We’re not saying [the department has] done anything wrong, but it could certainly happen, and it opens themselves to questions, and people have brought up a lot of questions.”
One of the more publicized questions came from Sgt. William Johnson, who was certain he would be promoted to lieutenant in October 2006. After scoring ninth in a pool of 56 applicants, 11 of whom would be promoted, Johnson considered himself a shoo-in. In the former system, he would’ve been. But when Serpas announced the promotions, Johnson wasn’t one of them.
Then came the realization that the two black officers whom the chief promoted scored 15th and 16th on the exam. Johnson has said he was dumbfounded, even humiliated. His claims smacked of reverse discrimination—though no one, including Johnson, said as much. Of course, as far as the chief is concerned, the two officers could’ve shown more leadership potential than Johnson, even if they scored lower. But no one, including Johnson, knows exactly what the chief’s reasons were.
Civil Service Commissioner Michael Allen, who was the only commissioner to vote against the new policy last year, says he’d feared a situation like Johnson’s all along. “That’s why I voted against it,” Allen says. “If [Johnson] was higher on the list and didn’t get promoted, I don’t think it was fair. But I lost that vote and that policy was adopted, and the way that policy works, he’s been treated fairly. There is some reason that Chief Serpas is looking over him.”
But the new policy doesn’t require the chief to state his reasons, and that makes the union uneasy. “They get nothing from the department to say, ‘This is why we didn’t choose you,’ ” says Teamsters attorney Byrd, who fears claims like Johnson’s will only become more frequent. “Every time you have an officer—regardless of if they’re a minority or non-minority—who does not get promoted, and someone who scores lower does get promoted, there’s going to be dissatisfaction. There’s no accountability in this system.”
Chief Serpas would agree to respond only to written questions from the Scene on promotion policies. In an email, Serpas writes that he is “very much satisfied with the police department’s current promotional process.” Asked if he thinks the current system is much of an improvement on the last, he writes: “Nashvillians expect me, as chief of police, to make the best decisions possible in determining who is promoted into supervisory positions. The system that has been in place for the past year allows me to consider criteria which, under the former system, could not have been used. The current promotional system allows this police department to select leaders based on demonstrated performance and test scores, not just test scores alone. That is very important.”
So is officer morale, Byrd says, and with all the woes of the current system, camaraderie has taken a big hit. And Byrd doesn’t see things improving anytime soon. “Once you get something put into place in the government, it’s awfully hard to get it changed again,” he says.In the meantime, while many in the department agree that, once again, promotional procedure changes are in order, their quibbles over exactly what aspects need tweaking could keep any Kumbaya moments at bay. Until an altered system is in place, Miller promises that the department’s factions will “continue to be at each other’s throats.”
First of all, the opposition to AMP isn't all that much about Lee Beaman. The…
Ben P - I don't recall you and I engaging on a topic before, and…
Is this parody?
Is this parody?!
There are changes constantly to this city. As someone who put roots down here in…