Feds launch civil rights investigation into Maryland State Police hiring practices

Federal officials have announced a civil rights investigation to determine whether the Maryland State Police engaged in racially discriminatory hiring and employment practices.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office announced a joint inquiry Friday into the state law enforcement agency’s hiring patterns, citing a section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or faith.

“Our investigation will determine whether the Maryland Department of State Police has created racially discriminatory barriers for Black people seeking job opportunities and promotions and, if so, identify the reforms necessary to ensure equal employment opportunities,” Kristen Clarke, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a news release.

“All communities deserve law enforcement agencies that are built upon principles of fairness and equity,” Clarke added.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 grants the Justice Department the ability to investigate state and local government employers if it believes a “pattern or practice” of employment discrimination exists, federal officials explained.

A release announcing the inquiry did not offer specifics on what prompted the investigation, but MSP has previously been accused of discriminatory employment practices by Black officers who alleged being overlooked for promotions and disciplined more harshly than white officers.

“We always have to watch our backs — what we say, what we do,” an officer told WTOP’s news partners at NBC Washington in Feb. 2021. “And it’s never an even playing field.”

The agency recently came under fire for a challenge coin circulated among its ranks featuring vulgar imagery that some Black troopers saw as retribution for raising concerns over discrimination.

In a statement following the Justice Department’s announcement, MSP Superintendent Col. Woodrow W. Jones III said he would assist investigators and spoke of “significant actions” taken to address perceptions of racism or unfair treatment in the force.

“Working with the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers, the Legislative Black Caucus, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the Maryland State Police Office of Equity and Inclusion and other stakeholders, I have implemented new procedures and initiatives, opened new lines of communication and hired subject matter experts, all for the purpose of ensuring the department addresses these issues and is a law enforcement leader in these matters,” Jones said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan also pledged his cooperation.

“The Maryland State Police is the finest police organization in the country, and we have committed record funding to increase diversity and strengthen recruitment during a challenging time for law enforcement,” Mike Ricci, a spokesman for the governor, said. “It is important to ensure any wrongdoing is addressed, so we welcome this investigation and have pledged full cooperation.”

Statistics reported by NBC Washington showed Black officers make up 8.9% of high-ranking commissioned MSP officers and 11% of the agency’s non-commissioned officers, with very few rising to lieutenants.

In 2021, Maryland State Sen. Joanne Benson of Prince George’s County said Black troopers accused the agency of racism and discrimination, pointing to disparities in discipline and promotions, as well as underrepresentation and allegations of instances of retaliation.

“They had the paperwork. They had the proof,” Benson said. “They had done their homework relative to the incidents that have occurred and the problems they were experiencing.”

Benson said Friday afternoon that the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus has been trying to draw attention to the problem of racism and discrimination within the state police for at least eight years. She said that after there was no significant progress, some of the troopers decided to take their case to the Department of Justice.

“What they have done to African American state troopers … has been shameful,” Benson said. “The discipline, the unfair suspensions, the terminations, the way that they discipline the African American state troopers over the white ones has just been unbelievable.”

Clark F. Ahlers, a Maryland attorney who is representing Black troopers in several lawsuits against the state police, said he welcomes the Justice Department investigation.

“My belief is that the Maryland State Police have engaged in an unfortunate process of discriminating against troopers of color,” Ahlers told The Associated Press. “I would not need a Justice Department investigation to convince me of racial discrimination within the ranks of the Maryland State Police.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Alejandro Alvarez

Alejandro Alvarez joined WTOP as a digital journalist and editor in June 2018. He is a reporter and photographer focusing on politics, political activism and international affairs.

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