The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a “pattern or practice” investigation into the Maryland Department of State Police to examine if the agency racially discriminated in its hiring and promotion practices, officials announced Friday.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Erek L. Barron said in an interview that the probe, staffed by local attorneys in his office and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, will look into how the statewide law enforcement agency hires, promotes, trains, disciplines and makes special opportunities available to its employees.
Noting the probe comes after years of complaints of racial discrimination from Black troopers, Barron said the allegations would be concerning in any employment context, but are particularly concerning with law enforcement officers “who we’re trusting to make a lot of important decisions.”
The governor and the state police superintendent on Friday said they welcomed the probe and pledged cooperation with investigators.
Col. Woodrow W. Jones III, the state police superintendent, said in a statement that he learned of the probe on Friday morning and noted his administration has worked to address diversity and inclusion.
“Significant actions have been taken and are continuing to address even the perception of racism or unfair treatment of any kind,” Jones said, pointing to the hiring of subject matter experts, new procedures and initiatives and new lines of communication the department had created.
The investigation is the latest to be announced by the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who rescinded restrictions on consent decrees instituted under former President Donald Trump. Other ongoing investigations launched in recent years include police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville, Phoenix, Louisiana and New York.
Barron said the investigation into the Maryland State Police force’s hiring and employment practices is much less common than probes into policing practices like the Baltimore Police Department underwent beginning in 2015.
Barron called investigations like that of the Maryland State Police “perhaps an untapped area to make a difference.” He stressed there have been no conclusions reached but said the allegations are worth examining.
“How you conduct your own house is going to be reflective of how you interface with the community and your roles and responsibilities to the public,” said Barron, who formerly served in the Maryland General Assembly, where allegations of discrimination against Black state troopers have been raised in recent years.
Moving forward, attorneys from Barron’s office and the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division will put together an investigative plan, which is expected to include interviews with troopers and other information gathering, Barron said. He estimated it would take a year or longer.
Black troopers in the agency welcomed the announcement on Friday, according to one trooper who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. He called the news a blessing and said he’d received dozens of text messages from coworkers.
“In the history of MSP, we haven’t had luck being heard, for the most part,” he said Friday. “We’re not asking for special treatment. We’re just asking to be treated fair. Fair, and equal to our counterparts. … The same fairness we’re expected to give the citizens of Maryland.”
Sgt. Anthony Alexander, the president of the Coalition of Black Maryland State Troopers, said he supported someone from the outside giving an objective opinion on the agency’s practices. Troopers have been fighting “desperately” for years, he said, and he hopes that whatever comes of the probe, it will help to improve the agency.
“Maybe something good will come out of it,” he said. “If they find something, we need to apply it and move on to improve our police department. And maybe other agencies will do the same.”
He added that the state police superintendent has taken steps to try to improve diversity and working conditions, but called the issue “deep-rooted” and part of the agency’s culture.
A news release announcing the investigation noted the Justice Department is granted the power to investigate state and local employers if it believes there is a “pattern or practice” of employment discrimination. Federal law bars employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin and religion.
Black troopers and state lawmakers have for years raised concerns about the state police’s disparate treatment of Black employees around discipline, hiring and promotions. The superintendent of the agency was called in for questioning by lawmakers last year, with one referencing an incident in which a banana was left on the hood of a Black trooper’s car.
Media reports have previously highlighted a larger number of disciplinary cases against Black officers than white counterparts and a lack of proportional representation.
Attorney Michal Shinnar and her colleague Jay Holland represent a group of state troopers with discrimination cases pending with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she said. The troopers’ experiences include being denied promotions, denied transfers to lateral positions key to professional development, terminated and receiving “severe and extended” suspensions.
In one case, an officer of color was suspended for many months for allegedly making an error in his time card, Shinnar said.
“This is something that not just impacts them and officers of color on the Maryland State Police force. It also impacts citizens of the state of Maryland, who deserve to have a police force run justly and equitably. This collective case is about a way in which it’s not,” Shinnar said.
Shinnar praised the DOJ choosing to examine the agency’s practices and said she hopes it can be “a step toward eradicating discrimination in the Maryland State Police.”
Clarke Ahlers, an attorney who has represented Black and brown troopers in disciplinary and criminal matters, said he’d been vocal about the treatment of troopers of color by the agency — including “overt racism” and unfair treatment.
He said troopers have complained to the governor, state lawmakers and others and “gotten nowhere for a long time.” But he believes this time may be different because the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division is “more honest and more powerful than the Maryland State Police.”
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Governor Larry Hogan, called Maryland State Police the “finest police organization in the country” and added it is important to address any wrongdoing.
“We have committed record funding to increase diversity and strengthen recruitment during a challenging time for law enforcement,” Ricci said in an emailed statement. “We are grateful for the sacrifices that our troopers and their families make in their daily commitment to keep our communities safe.”
There are a number of possible outcomes for the investigation, ranging from a finding there was no wrongdoing or law violations to a lawsuit finding discrimination, which could then lead to a settlement or consent decree.
Asked about specific areas the investigation would look into, Barron said there had been no judgments made about any particular practices. He said he hoped to be as “comprehensive as possible.”
The DOJ has investigated employment discrimination in other police departments, including in Lubbock, Texas. That investigation led to a complaint from the Justice Department that the written and physical fitness tests disproportionately screened out Hispanic and female applicants and didn’t distinguish between who could and couldn’t do the job. It led to a settlement agreement reached in 2016.
Daily Top Stories
Get the day’s top news, sports, opinion, features and local events.
A DOJ lawsuit in the 1970s also alleged racial and gender discrimination at the fire department in Fairfax County, Virginia. It led to decades of monitoring by a federal judge, according to The Washington Post.
Baltimore Police are currently under a consent decree connected to a DOJ investigation launched in May 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray.
Baltimore County Police were sued by the justice department in 2019 over their use of written tests administered to police recruits that it argued were unfairly biased against Black applicants. The county settled the following year and nearly 380 rejected applicants were found eligible for back pay last month.
A case also brought by the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section led to a $2 million settlement last year in Pennsylvania following allegations the state police’s physical test in its hiring process resulted in employment discrimination against women.
Last month, after an explicit challenge coin with the Maryland State Police logo and offensive language surfaced, some Black troopers said they took the coin’s message about being “offended” as a response to allegations they’d raised of racial discrimination.
Alexander, president of the group representing Black troopers, said at the time there was “animosity and division” in the agency after recent complaints. He called the coin an example of a culture that needs to change.
“It’s a complete disrespect for your fellow brothers that’s beside you,” Alexander said at the time. “If that is the case, then how do we serve the community? How do we serve Maryland, if we are divided?”