The Mobile Police Department’s selection of a white candidate over a black candidate for its most recent major promotion put the process under a spotlight during a meeting of the Mobile City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday.
Councilman Fred Richardson said Capt. Linda Thames was not ultimately selected for the latest promotion, and instead Capt. Randy Jackson was selected to replace a retiring Maj. Beraneise Dixon, a black woman.
For Richardson, overlooking Thames pointed to a bigger issue within the department when it comes to promoting black candidates for upper-level positions. He added that he was not advocating for Thames.
“I was advocating for diversity in the police department,” Richardson said. “They had a great opportunity.”
MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste, who is black, and Public Safety Director James Barber told Richardson and other councilors that in order to promote more black officers, more black officers would have to join the force on the ground level. They estimated that in order to get a percentage of sworn officers and command staff in place that better represents the majority black city, it could take five to ten years. As it currently stands, black officers make up roughly 33 percent of the department. Although among non-officer positions, Barber said black employees make up closer to 50 percent.
“You can’t keep telling me you’ve got to get them at the base when you’ve got someone up top who’s ready to go,” Richardson said, referencing Thames.
Further, Richardson said it is his understanding that Thames was recommended for the promotion by Battiste, but Barber wanted to go with another candidate. At the meeting, Battiste said he did not recommend Thames, but that she was in the top five. Battiste said he always attempts to promote the candidate who is first or second on the Mobile County Personnel Board list, following an examination. Barber said Battiste “wasn’t trumped by me” in the promotion process.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, committee chair, agreed with Battiste that it was the best way to promote. Richardson argued that if diversity is an issue in the department, it would make sense for MPD to promote the black candidate who’s in fifth place. Barber argued it is illegal to promote someone based solely on race.
In a phone interview Thursday, Barber doubled down on this statement, saying it was both “inappropriate and unlawful” for Richardson to try and tell the city who to hire. Barber added that the process can not be controlled by political cronyism.
Councilman C.J. Small told administration officials that having a majority of the department that “looks like” a majority of the city’s residents is important.
“Look on the TV, the coverage depicts the majority of crimes are committed by people who look like me and nobody on the executive staff looks like me, I’m leery,” he said. “No. 1 may not be better than No. 6 because No. 6 may have more experience.”
Small went on to explain that some candidates may not test as well as others. Barber agreed and said that’s why the department did away with a 100-question promotion test and instead made the assessment skills based.
Richardson and other councilors questioned the examination used to promote within the department, as well as the usefulness of a contract the city signed years ago to bring in a consultant to make the process more fair.
In late 2014, the city entered into a contract with Booth Research Group Inc. not to exceed $514,570 for promotional testing for Mobile Fire-Rescue Department and MPD.
Battiste and Barber told councilors that Booth was used during one round of promotions and the group trained MCPB staff on the testing process going forward. Councilors asked if the contract had resulted in more diverse promotions.
Barber told committee members that the department’s command staff had three black officers in it when he took over out of a larger total number of commanders and now has two out of nine total.
Richardson also argued that since members of the command staff had a say in what skills were assessed on the exam, they could give friends an advantage. Barber argued that the Personnel Board is responsible for putting the assessment together and members of the command staff are “completely withdrawn.” He added, however, that members of the department do help the board come up with assessment areas needed on the exam. He said the process was fair.
As for the test grading, that is done by independent board of experts from departments from as far away as Las Vegas, Barber said.
For his part, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said it feels like the city doesn’t have control over who it can and can’t hire when burdened by following MCPB rules. He said he’d like to see changes made at the state level to the laws pertaining to personnel boards.
Councilman Levon Manzie said the council would be “responsive” to the mayor on that issue and requested a sit-down to discuss it further.
Though it wasn’t proposed by the city, a bill that aimed to give local municipalities more control in the hiring and promoting of employees failed to find support among local legislators in 2016.
This story was updated at 7:08 p.m. on May 9 to clarify a quote from Councilman C.J. Small.