Police Chief: Relaxing NJ Civil Service Rules Would Help Departments Hire More Diverse Recruits | Notice
By Louis Bordi
As a national discussion rages on the appropriate role for law enforcement, police chiefs statewide are calling for updates to New Jersey public service regulations that would allow many police departments locals to diversify their ranks.
The civil service dates back to 1871, enacted so that government employees could perform their jobs without political interference. Its regulations have allowed police services to prioritize the hiring of their residents and veterans, encouraging fairness and opportunity.
Today, some of these rules are obsolete. They make it almost impossible for police services to recruit people of color, despite the fact that police chiefs and local officials want their ranks to better reflect the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of their respective communities.
Tangible change can only happen if the New Jersey Civil Service Commission – which oversees hiring for the state government, 20 of 21 counties and more than 200 municipalities – finally changes its policies. To date, this has not happened, despite constant efforts over the many years New Jersey State Association of Police Chiefs. There also does not appear to be any real discussion about changing its rules by this state commission, despite anti-police sentiment in many pockets of this country.
The long-held perception of the police as a force of oppression makes it more difficult to find potential agents in predominantly Black, Hispanic and Asian communities. Some fear that this has worsened following the murder of George Floyd and other similar incidents nationwide.
But, successful minority recruiting efforts face additional obstacles in New Jersey.
Police chiefs in cities without public office are free to attend job fairs and actively recruit minorities. Yet in civil service towns, police chiefs can only encourage minorities to apply, with no control over those applicants.
This is because candidates in civil service cities are hired on the basis of an age-old “rule of three”. It includes a candidate’s score for a written entry-level “law enforcement exam”; whether the applicant lives in the city and is a veteran. Candidates who check all three boxes have preference for hiring. It is concerning that they may not be the best possible police recruits, depending on the pool of candidates available, or that they may not reflect important ethnic groups in their communities.
Under current civil service rules, it doesn’t matter. Those selected will remain at the top of the hiring pool for two years, while many other better qualified candidates will ultimately seek jobs elsewhere, often in the private sector.
New Jersey has many cases of talented, intelligent, and ethnically diverse applicants who score the highest in the “rule of three.” But, they have to compete for police stations with many others, all at a fraction of the point of each other.
In an age when so many New Jerseyans want their police departments to better represent the ethnic makeup of their municipalities, employment opportunities must expand dramatically.
Effective police services would function better if their officers understand and can relate to the communities they serve, especially as demographics continue to change.
There have been a few pilot programs to get around the public service, like in Camden. The pilot project allows law enforcement agencies to hire Class 2 Special Law Enforcement Constables (SLEO2s) without civil service regulations, and then allows promotions to full patrol officers.
There are also “alternative routes” programs available at some New Jersey police academies. This allows promising applicants to pay for their own basic police training before applying to police services. This can save municipalities thousands of dollars in training costs per agent. It can also be an ideal choice for people of color who can afford it, but many cannot.
At present, the law also prohibits graduates of the “alternative route” from being appointed SLEO2, although this is sometimes the only possibility for minority officers to get a job in a police department.
We saw some relief on February 4 when Gov. Phil Murphy signed S.3220, allowing public service agencies to hire officers who have graduated from a police academy, but without the need to take a civil service exam. Yet many people from struggling communities, where there are diverse candidates, cannot afford to pay the price or quit their paid job for 20 or 22 weeks to take training. The other flaw: a local board of directors must pass an ordinance to allow these candidates to be hired.
I’m glad some New Jersey lawmakers are now focusing their attention on this obvious barrier to recruiting minorities.
A proposal, A4517, calls on the Civil Service Commission to establish a mentoring program for police candidates belonging to minorities.
Another invoice, A4542, would require the Civil Service Commission to undertake various initiatives to increase diversity, such as analyzing the racial makeup of law enforcement agencies in our state. The objective: Identify the police services that would benefit from the elimination of the residential hiring requirement.
A third measure, A4598, would establish a monitoring database to aid the police hiring process so that the Public Service Commission can better understand who is hired and who is not.
Diversity is clearly crucial to breaking the decades-long cycle of mistrust and cultural misunderstanding between the police and the public they serve. It is time for more state lawmakers to recognize that changes need to be made and for the Civil Service Commission to work with lawmakers and the police to develop viable and lasting solutions to improve minority recruitment.
Louis Bordi is the president of the New Jersey State Police Chiefs Association.
Our journalism needs your support. Please register today for NJ.com.
Here is how to submit an editorial or letter to the editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at Opinion NJ.com. Get the latest updates straight to your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com newsletters.