PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – The city has agreed to pay nearly $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union three years ago that claimed police hiring policies discriminated against blacks.
City solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge told The Associated Press that the city doesn’t believe there was racial bias, but is settling to limit the city’s liability against future claims of discrimination and attorneys’ fees.
“In taking a look at this case, we did a risk analysis and what are the risks going forward,” Sanchez-Ridge said Thursday. “From the city’s point of view, if in this kind of action a jury awards $1 (in damages), then we have to pay all the attorneys’ fees and there are six (plaintiffs’) attorneys – so it’s going to be a lot more than this entire settlement.”
ACLU Director Vic Walczak says city officials would tell African-American police candidates with minor legal infractions – like smoking marijuana from years ago – that they could not be hired, while white candidates with more recent infractions were hired.
The ACLU sued saying only 23 of 530 officers hired by the city since 2001 have been black, even though the city’s population is about 26 percent black. The percentage of black officers in the city, which was about 17 percent when the lawsuit was hired, dropped to about 13 percent at one point last year. The current percentage of black officers was not immediately available.
The city is paying $985,000 in damages and up to $600,000 in attorneys’ fees, though a federal judge must approve that amount, Walczak said. The city is also paying expert consultants $250,000 to overhaul its hiring practices in hopes of making the process more amenable to black police recruits. Sanchez-Ridge said the city was committed to spending that money even before the settlement.
“Having a police force that more closely resembles Pittsburgh’s demographics is important,” Walczak said. “It’s a matter of fairness to qualified African-American applicants and it will promote the city administration’s goal of improving the strained relations between police and communities of color.”
The damages will be split among roughly 360 black candidates who were rejected by the police from 2008 to 2014, with the five lead plaintiffs likely getting more money than the others.
The city had previously said in court papers that the lead plaintiff had three warrants for failing to respond to citations, a spotty work record and a “poor” driving record when he was passed over for a police job, and that claims by four other plaintiffs were “extremely weak.”
But Sanchez-Ridge said the city nonetheless sought and was committed to increasing minority hiring. “What the experts are saying is that no specific step in the process had an adverse impact, but the process as a whole has an adverse impact,” on black candidates, she said.
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