Are State Police ignoring background checks to increase diversity?
A lawsuit by a veteran trooper alleges State Police ignored disqualifying problems in police academy background checks in the interest of increasing diversity, according to a new report.
In the lawsuit, as described by New Jersey Advance Media, Sgt. Jaclyn Jiras alleges she was reassigned and denied a promotion because she objected to the practice, while serving five months working as a background investigator. The report cites court records and administrative documents showing she and another trooper were disciplined for allegedly leaking information from confidential background checks to a retired trooper.
According to the report, Jiras alleged in the suit that she'd flagged several candidates based on "automatic disqualifiers" set by the Office of the attorney General. It states: One candidate had been found guilty of tax evasion and had a suspended driver's license, another had an active criminal warrant and a third candidate's Facebook account showed ties to the Bloods street gang as well as posts from the applicant "making race-based comments," the suit alleges.
The report cites disciplinary documents alleging Jiras disclosed the name of an applicant who later became a trooper, and specific information about his reinstatement after being disqualified twice. Another trooper, it says, was accusing of leaking "that he had been ordered by a lieutenant colonel not to make an arrest regarding an active warrant on an applicant," and "that minority applicants, who had been automatically disqualified during their (background checks), were still sent to the academy 'due to NAACP issues.'"
A settlement between the NAACP and State Police in 2000 called for greater minority recruitment, and the organization began stepping up pressure significantly again in 2011, after a severe drop in black academy graduates. In 2012, the organization threatened to sue the State Police if it didn't overhaul background checks it said were disproportionately weeding out black cndidates.
State Police Capt. Stephen Jones told New Jersey 101.5 he couldn't respond to the specific allegations in the suit — he said he'd need to know the names and circumstances of those people it alleges were given a pass despite flags on their background checks. Even then, he said, "the response will probably be in the courts."
But Jones said — without addressing the diversity issue directly — a red flag on a background check might not automatically rule a candidate out.
"Some of the disqualifiers are no-brainers, written in stone," he said. "Other disqualifiers get changed and removed as time goes on. There are things that can be investigated further.
The report comes at a time State Police are still struggling to beef up diversity in their ranks. A Press of Atlantic City report this weekend said State Police have seen a 16 percent decrease in black troopers since 2005. Black troopers account for 6 percent of the State Police Force, but 15 percent of the state’s population, that report said.
"The State Police has always put a lot of work in our relationships with the community to attract a qualified, diverse pool of applicants," Jones told New Jersey 101.5. "Over the last six months, we've reorganized the recruiting and employee development bureau" to get more qualified applicants, he said.
In 2012, the state Attorney General's Office announced its graduating Recruit Training Class was "the most diverse graduating class in State Police history." It then exceeded that in 2013, with the 153rd class, with 54 percent of the graduates coming from minority groups, officials said at the time.
"The 153rd class represents a major step forward in our continuing effort to develop and maintain a State Police force that reflects the diverse population it serves," Governor Chris Christie said to the new troopers, according to a State Police announcement at the time. "That is critical because the State Police is the most visible symbol of law enforcement throughout New Jersey, and every individual Trooper who puts on the uniform is recognized as a leader — on the road, in his or her neighborhood and in the community at large."
A call Monday by New Jersey 101.5 to Jiras' attorney Katherine Hartman has not yet been returned. New Jersey 101.5 is seeking a copy of the lawsuit,