The multiple-choice exam every New Orleans Police Department recruit must pass before entering the academy may introduce racial bias into the hiring process and should be scrapped, according to a new report from the federal consent decree monitors.
The monitors’ report also found that the NOPD’s controversial decision early this year to drop a college credit requirement for recruits corresponded with only a short-term spike in job applications and a significant reduction in their quality.
The report released Wednesday comes as the NOPD continues to struggle to boost its headcount, which stands level with where it was a year ago and hundreds of officers below Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s goal, despite an aggressive yearlong push by the department to attract more officers.
NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said the department already is working with the city’s Civil Service Commission — which writes the recruiting test — to draw up a new one. He also pushed back against suggestions that recruiting is flat-lining despite the lower educational hurdle.
“We believe that we are going to get the number of qualified applicants that we need,” Harrison said. “We are working hard every day to become more effective and more efficient about the hiring process.”
The written multiple-choice exam came in for the heaviest criticism from the monitors, who are charged with overseeing progress under the 2012 reform agreement the department signed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The test is outdated and ineffective, and should be scrapped,” the report said.
Alarmingly for a department that is trying to eliminate the biased policing that came to light in the Justice Department’s investigation, the monitors suggested that the test may be slanted against African-American and female applicants.
While white applicants passed the test at a 90 percent rate, African-Americans passed the written exam only 62 percent of the time. Women passed the test 68 percent of the time, compared with 80 percent for men.
A national expert on police recruiting said that while such racial disparities are not uncommon, the wide split between men and women passing the test struck him as an “anomaly.”
“We need to ask, ‘Is this test really predictive of who’s going to be a good police officer?’ ” said Nelson Lim, an adjunct behavioral social scientist at the RAND Corp.
Experts say that large organizations like the NOPD should frequently “validate” their tests to ensure they are actually producing the kind of new hires they need, but the Civil Service Commission has not done so since 2002.
According to the monitors’ report, Civil Service Director Lisa Hudson agreed that the test is “outdated.” The commission has pledged to work with the NOPD and Louisiana Tech to write a new one.
The monitors also charged that the actual job interview the NOPD uses, which is based on a written questionnaire prepared by a national company, is rigid and superficial.
In an effort to avoid lawsuits from rejected job seekers, the monitors charge, the department has gone too far in stripping out free-form follow-up questions.
“We sort of take exception to that,” Harrison said. “The structured interview is the actual best practice around the country, in business and law enforcement.”
He said sticking to standard questions eliminates the possibility that questioners will ask leading or biased questions.
The NOPD says the results from its recruiting push have been significant. In the first six months of the year, according to the department, there have been 3,000 job applications, more than in all of 2014.
In the wake of the February shift away from requiring college credits, applicants are now 15 to 20 percent less likely to pass all the department’s tests, according to NOPD Deputy Chief of Staff Jonathan Wisbey. But he added that given the much larger pool of applicants, the department’s “yield” of successful candidates has been “significantly higher.” He did not cite a specific number.
Whatever initial recruiting boost the department’s decision to drop the requirement for 60 hours of college credit may have created appears to have evaporated, however. The number of new applications last month was level with the same month last year.
The monitors’ report fretted about the lengthy time it takes for recruits to go from application to hiring — on average, according to the report, 184 days. A background investigation by itself takes an average of 72 days.
Harrison said the NOPD has reduced its background check period by 30 percent. It has doubled its background investigations staff from four to eight.
So far, the department’s much-heralded 10 percent pay increase does not appear to have increased its recruiting pool. Lim said that in his experience, other factors — such as a department’s reputation and the overall economy — are much more important in recruiting than starting pay.
As of June, the department had 1,155 officers and recruits, roughly equal to where it stood a year before and far below the 1,575 the mayor has said he wants.
Harrison said he remains confident that the paycheck bump will yield results. “We are going to see more people applying because of the pay increase, and more people choosing to stay longer because of the pay increase,” he said.