Racial Tensions Escalate 

Black and white cops feud over promotions, putting the chief in the middle

Black and white cops feud over promotions, putting the chief in the middle

As acting Metro Police Chief Deborah Faulkner seeks to be named permanent chief, she has become entangled in a racially divisive debate over promotions that may cost her the support of black officers and the African American community.

At issue is whether the department’s test-heavy process for promoting officers unfairly impedes minorities from moving up the ranks. A comprehensive audit of the department, released last year by MGT of America, said as much, finding the current system for promoting officers to be harmful, legally suspect and hostile toward enhancing diversity. The audit recommended that the current system be flat-out restructured.

“There is a consensus that many officers who would make superior supervisors are being screened out by the current process,” the audit concluded. “A new process should be developed.”

In June, however, Faulkner disbanded a panel that had been evaluating the current promotional process to determine whether it should be changed. Her decision angered black officers, who viewed it as a concession to the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), whose membership likes the current system the way it is. Faulkner, however, says that the panel had reached an impasse, so she decided to turn the issue over to Metro human resource officials, who are currently working with outside experts to look at what, if any, changes need to be made.

“Chief Faulkner has concerns about the department’s overall diversity, and she is committed to doing what she can to see that the department overall, including its supervisory areas, reflects the diversity of the Nashville community,” says department spokesman Don Aaron.

Black officers, however, simply point to the numbers. In 1998 and 2000, they say, nearly 143 officers were promoted to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant, but only six of them were black. In other words, less than 5 percent of minorities were promoted, even while they make up nearly 13 percent of the department’s sworn officers.

“If that doesn’t indicate something’s wrong, I don’t know what does,” says Sgt. Marita Granberry, who’s also an assistant secretary for the Nashville Chapter of the National Black Police Association. “And if that’s an indicator of what’s to come, then we don’t have much hope for the future.”

The FOP, however, is adamant about keeping the promotion test more or less the way it is. The group, which is open to all officers but whose membership is largely white, says that nobody has offered a better alternative to the process currently in place.

“We’ve asked the city how many minorities took the test and how many didn’t take the test...and we haven’t gotten any answers,” says Ed Mason, FOP vice president. “Everybody tells us we have a problem, but we haven’t gotten any good answers to tell us what the problem is.”

In fact, knowing the number of black officers who took the promotion test is clearly crucial to understanding the depth of the problem. The numbers are telling: Of 363 total applicants for sergeant positions in 2000, 71 were black. Of the 96 candidates who did well enough on the test to make the promotion list, 15 were black. Since then, only two of them have been promoted.

As it stands, every two to three years, the department offers candidates with at least four years of experience a chance to apply for promotion to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant. Candidates are assigned textbooks with titles like Supervision of Law Enforcement Personnel and Practical Law Enforcement and are given a test on the study materials about three months later. Candidates who score competitively go on to what is called the assessment center, where they are evaluated on oral, written and situational skills. Outside evaluators, with no ties to the Metro Police Department, review each candidate’s performance. The officers are given a cumulative score and are then ranked in order of competency. At that point, the department develops a list of qualified candidates and fills vacancies for open sergeant and lieutenant positions down the list.

“That list is gospel,” the FOP’s Mason says. “If they have 10 slots open, and you’re number eight on the list, you should know that you’ll be promoted.”

Officer Walter Holloway, the president of the Nashville Chapter of the Black Police Association, counters that the current testing process doesn’t mirror reality. “This...structure just selects good test takers,” he says. “You can be a good test taker and not know how to deal with people or the problems of this city.”

The recent performance audit echoed Holloway’s criticism, characterizing the promotional process as too reliant on test scores and not reliant enough on other factors, including an officer’s past performance and disciplinary records.

“A major flaw with this process is the reality that there is no direct correlation between an excellent test taker and an excellent supervisor,” the 2002 audit reported. “Knowing what to do as demonstrated by an exam, and being willing and able to do it in real life, are two very different things.”

The audit cited both non-ranking and ranking officers as “very critical” of the current system and concluded just what Holloway is claiming—that the system fails to promote women and minority candidates.

Then-Chief Emmett Turner agreed with the audit’s conclusions. “Some people test very well but may not make good supervisors,” he tells the Scene. “You need to take a comprehensive look when you’re attempting to identify a supervisor.”

So, shortly after the audit was released, Turner formed a committee, including members of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Black Police Association, to review the current promotional process and consider changes. But it quickly became clear that there was deadlock along racial lines. “When it came down to trying to come up with a process that would be equitable, the FOP wouldn’t budge,” Granberry says. “We suggested some weight be given to seniority, education, leadership training. But they said they’re not budging. Here we are all a part of a committee, and they bring nothing to the table.”

Interestingly enough, the FOP doesn’t really dispute that. “The reason we haven’t proposed alternatives is that we think the system is good enough as it is,” says Sgt. Calvin Hullett, FOP president. “How do we change the process and have it still produce the best candidate? They haven’t been able to give us a scenario that will do that. If they suggest something other than just put your name in a hat and pick it, then we’ll consider it.”

The panel met off and on for more than six months, finding little common ground on the important issues. Then, after Turner retired, acting Chief Deborah Faulkner disbanded the panel, angering black officers even though they acknowledge that progress wasn’t forthcoming. “We met with Chief Faulkner, and she said our meetings weren’t getting anywhere,” Granberry recalls. “We said, 'We’re here presenting ideas, and the FOP isn’t bringing anything to the table, and you decide to disband the committee?’ ”

While the chief consults with Metro human resource officials to examine the issue, the damage might already be done. The common criticism of Faulkner is that she’s too close to the FOP. In August 2001, Faulkner cleared two officers charged with being present when renegade security guards were terrorizing Hispanics. The department’s own Office of Professional Accountability prepared a 1,275-page report that outlined wrongdoing by the officers. But Faulkner believed the word of the two charged cops, not the extensive documentation her department’s own internal affairs unit provided. That decision and a reputation for being lenient on ill-behaving officers have tainted Faulkner, in the eyes of some, as being a pawn of the FOP.

“If her impartiality is evidenced by how she summarily dismissed the charges against those police officers, the Hispanic community can’t look forward to having a chief of police that will take their complaints seriously,” said Jerry Gonzalez, a Nashville attorney, in an interview with the Scene earlier this year.

Even now, Faulkner’s reputation precedes her. While she might ultimately revamp the promotional process that the FOP so adamantly supports, for now she looks like she’s defending it on their behalf. “I don’t know if she’s too close to the FOP,” Granberry says. “But everything they’ve wanted, they’ve gotten. They liked the process; they got to keep it. They didn’t like the meetings; they got disbanded.”

Faulkner’s office, meanwhile, insists that the acting chief is not playing favorites. “She meets monthly with the boards of both the FOP and the Nashville Chapter of the National Black Police Association,” Aaron says. “She is very open to and considers the concerns of both entities.”

Meanwhile, there’s an ironic twist to all of this bickering that seems to run contrary to what each side believes. About five African Americans who took the most recent test did well enough that they’re now in line for promotions. The black cops want them to be promoted, even though they don’t like the process that selected them. “We still don’t like the process,” Granberry says. “But the process that we don’t like finally has some diversity, and there’s an opportunity for some people to get something.”

But this same list—which, don’t forget, the FOP characterized as “gospel”—is now, suddenly, too old. This, according to the group’s vice president. Mason says the department needs to test on a more regular basis and that his group is surveying its members to see if they think the department should wait until a new list is completed, which should be early next year, before promoting officers. (The police department delayed making promotions from the old list while it was being audited last year.)

But, on this point, there doesn’t seem to be agreement, even among the FOP. President Calvin Hullett actually sides with the black officers on this one. Hullett is on the current list and is therefore in line for a promotion. Because of that, he declines to take a public stand on the issue, but in an e-mail to fellow officers, he characterizes the survey question that FOP brass sent to members to find out their opinions on the issue as “stupid.” The e-mail goes on to explain that officers will simply vote their self-interest, which wouldn’t lead to a pure result.

So in addition to figuring out whether to change the department’s promotion system, Faulkner will also have to decide what to do with those currently in line for a promotion. Making a tough political situation even dicier for the acting chief is that some of the city’s most influential African American leaders are watching closely to see what she does next. “We’re looking at this process because it’s very insensitive to minorities,” says the Rev. James Thomas of Jefferson Street Baptist Church. “It makes it hard for blacks to rise up. We can’t get any sergeants. All we get is patrol.”

Of course, Faulkner and Mayor Bill Purcell are going to be hesitant to change the current system, since keeping it has become a hot button issue for the FOP, a politically influential group. An e-mail from Mason to the FOP membership illustrates that point: “The suggestions in the audit are just those, suggestions.... We feel like we are obligated to look at them, but think they do not have merit. We have not forgotten the mayor’s promise during his campaign, not to mess with the police promotion system!”

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