Bias claims against psych testing firm could delay Newark police hires

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on August 04, 2015

NEWARK – Members of the Municipal Council are refusing to renew a contract for the police department's longtime psychological testing firm, which could threaten to delay a class of sorely needed recruits from hitting the streets.

At a meeting at City Hall this afternoon, members of the department pleaded their case for the council to commit up to $60,000 to the Oakland-based Institute for Forensic Psychology, which has been screening Newark officers since 1986.

However, some members said they had major concerns about a large number of complaints that the firm had been discriminating against both women and minorities. The testing is given to all new police recruits, as well as others who might be suffering from acute stress following incidents such as an officer-involved shooting.

"We are not objecting to the service, we are objecting to the entity providing the service. It's the entity that we are not going to support here because of past practices. They have shown that they are not respecting some of the members of our community," said At-Large Councilman Carlos Gonzalez.

Sgt. Beatrice Golden of the police department's Legal Affairs Division said the Institute provided the same service to the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the area, including the Essex County Sheriff's Department, Port Authority, DEA and CIA. The contract for this year was never put out to bid.

Despite the firm's success, however, council members said they found it hard to believe it held a complete monopoly on the so-called "fitness for duty" screening.

"I fail to believe that this is the only doctor who can provide this service," said South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James.

A vote on the proposed contract, which would run from November 2014 through October 2015, had already been deferred last month, when council members first raised concerns over the allegations.

Golden said that despite the lack of a contract, the police department had already run up a bill of more than $30,000 testing new recruits through the Institute – a disclosure that did not sit well with council members.

"We spoke clearly here before, and the police department went ahead and solicited the services of this individual anyway," said Gonzalez.

Golden told the council that the department was in dire need of the testing services, particularly with a new class of recruits set to graduate from the police academy in early November, who might not be able to begin work without the proper clearance.

Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield-Jenkins said the proposal put the council in the difficult position of approving the contract, which could lead to additional discrimination lawsuits, or denying it and risk not adding much-needed officers at a time when Mayor Ras Baraka and other officials have publicly lamented the city's current shortage of manpower.

"We're caught in a catch-22 situation," she said.

Dr. Lewis Schlosser, a managing partner for the Institute of Forensic Technology, said the firm has screened approximately 120 candidates for the Newark Police Department since the start of 2014. Of those, 10 percent of black candidates and 8 percent of Hispanic candidates were rejected, compared to 6 percent of white recruits.

Along gender lines, 19 percent of women and 6 percent of men were deemed unfit.

Scholosser said that while some might point those numbers as evidence of bias, all the failure rates were below the 20 percent benchmark the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission characterizes as being worthy of concern.

"There is absolutely no adverse impact in our practices here," he said.

Chaneyfield-Jenkins initially moved to table the vote on the contract, though she agreed to leave it on the agenda for Wednesday's official meeting so that the council could consider authorizing funding for the testing that has already been performed.

In the meantime, council members requested a list of other area providers for the testing, and indicated that approval for the contract itself remained unlikely.

"We will not table at this exact moment, but as it stands it is in dire trouble," Chaneyfield-Jenkins said.

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