Dozens of Black police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, could possibly be demoted and forced to pay back money they earned after receiving promotions simply because they challenged the department’s allegedly racially biased practices.
For decades the Memphis Police Department has been criticized for discriminating against Black police officers and passing them up for promotions. These types of accusations against the department date all the way back to 1979 but a lawsuit from the early 2000s seemed to finally mark a victory for equality.
A group of Black officers won their suit against the department after they accused the defendants of using racially discriminatory tests to determine who would be promoted.
Some of the officers were even offered promotions following the ruling.
Last fall a federal appeals court overturned the decision from the lower court.
While the officers still have the opportunity to continue the legal battle, the city officials seem to be doing everything they can to discourage the officers from exercising their rights.
As the officers ponder whether or not they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the city is threatening to demote nearly 30 of the 62 plaintiffs and force them back into the positions they held more than a decade ago.
It’s a threat that has already garnered a lot of criticism.
“The city wants to give an ultimatum: If you all continue on, we’re going to demote you back to patrolman,” Lt. Tyrone Currie, the treasurer of the Afro American Police Association Memphis branch told the Huffington Post. “You should not retaliate against people just because they’re exercising their constitutional right to an appeal.”
Even legal experts are shocked by the city’s threat.
“[It] doesn’t seem like the right result,” Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University, told the Huffington Post.
Bagenstos said that the city seems to be taking the court’s decision to the extreme and are now “interpreting what the court has said as giving them the authority to do what they want to do.”
According to George Little, the chief administrative officer for the City of Memphis, the court’s decision gives the city the right to not only demote the officers but to demand they pay back the extra money they received when they were promoted.
“We can say fine, not only are we going to bump you back to whatever your former position was, we want our money back that you weren’t entitled to,” Little said, according to the Huffington Post.
Little also claimed that the city had no intention of trying to “punish” the officers and for now back pay is still just an option.
Issuing demotions, however, is the expected outcome.
“Demotion is basically what we’re looking at right now,” he added. “They’d go back to the rank they were at when all this started.”
What exactly started all this was a new promotional test implemented in 2000 that included both a written portion and a practical portion.
After the practical portion of the exam was leaked to other officers, they removed this section and only kept the written part of the exam—the same section that many believe Black officers were not as prepared for.
Courts agreed that the new version of the test wasn’t fair so they scrapped it and the city soon implemented another kind of test.
While little more than 30 percent of Black officers were promoted under the new test, more than 70 percent of white officers quickly climbed the ranks.
Black officers challenged the test and took their concerns to court where, in 2006, a district court ruled that the new test was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This provision makes it illegal for any employer to discriminate against employees based on race.
This was the order that led to the mass promotion of 28 of the plaintiffs before a later decision overturned the ruling.
The use of such tests has been questioned mainly because it varies greatly from the way many other companies go about finding candidates for promotions. Rather than simply analyzing the officers’ performance on the job, these tests are used to make the final decisions. So they wind up relying more on the rigor of a candidate’s educational background than on job performance.
What this means is that a stellar officer who may have shakier academic background could go years without being promoted while a less competent officer is promoted based on his performance on an arbitrary test that critics say helps white officers advance.