Like our Constitution, a significant number of our laws, whether on the federal, state, or local level, can be strictly interpreted and applied as the original framers understood them or they can be reevaluated in light of changing needs. Being among those who only gained the various benefits of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in my lifetime, I come down on the side of reevaluating laws and statutes to meet the moment when needed.
As we grapple with a variety of issues surrounding police and policing, I think there is value in putting everything on the table, including the issue of who gets hired and how. It goes directly to the question of diversity and whether a community’s police force consists of people who reflect and understand the residents or whether that community’s police force is more akin to an alien presence that relates to its residents as “subjects.”
In New Jersey, hiring is guided by Civil Service, which provides a testing mechanism for ranking applicants based on their scores on the Civil Service entry-level exam. From there, communities looking to hire officers are bound by “the rule of three” from a certified list. In essence, the rule of three requires a community to select from the top three on any given certified list regardless of whether that community is looking to hire candidates more apt to understand and be reflective of the community or simply looking to fill a spot.
There are, to be sure, a seemingly broad set of reasons that a candidate can be eliminated, or bypassed by a community. But it is not as simple as an attorney dismissing a prospective juror with a preemptory challenge at jury selection, because if a given recruit on the list is bypassed and appeals the decision, then all of sudden reasons must be mighty specific and that community may well not prevail.
So it is fair to say that the current system makes it hard to select candidates reflective of the community they will be serving. It is not uncommon for top-tier candidates to be separated by a couple of points so that the highest score might be a fraction or two above the individual who placed number six on the exam. If the person who placed sixth is a minority and more reflective of the community, unless there is a bona fide reason to eliminate numbers one through three, the hiring community won’t be able to diversify its police force.
An additional hurdle in the hiring process has to do with the time element involved with testing. As it stands now, the law enforcement exam in New Jersey is given every three years. A lot can happen in three years and a young person thinking about a career in law enforcement coming out of high school or college may move on to something else if they have to wait 24 or 36 months to take the exam. These young people often get invested in other things and life happens to them as it does to us all. The test should be given every year and be available as an option whenever young people are considering their futures.
Finally, bureaucracy being what it is, police departments waiting to get a list of eligible candidates and test scores too many times have to wait from four to six months before they get that certified list. For communities in need of police officers, this is no small thing and while there is a need to factor in appeals, having to wait months is unacceptable. If a given community gets the list at the end of the testing cycle, they may have to choose among candidates from several counties away, assuming these candidates would accept. If unsuccessful, communities will have to wait three and half years for the next shot at hiring.
On balance, Civil Service serves its purpose, but given the need for diversity in many police departments, it’s time Civil Service gives communities preemptory challenges to the rule of three and gives the law enforcement exam every year. That would be a starting place.