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2 black Pittsburgh police applicants file lawsuit

| Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, 12:49 a.m.

Pittsburgh's process of hiring police officers discriminates against black applicants, according to a lawsuit filed on Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The class-action suit includes two black men who said they were passed over for jobs as officers in the last stage of the hiring process despite ranking third and 11th on the eligibility list. City officials said the men's backgrounds, which they said includes drug use and traffic tickets, precluded them from becoming officers.

“We want to break down the current system and rebuild it,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

James Foster, 32, of Penn Hills said he was third on the 2009 eligibility list. A graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama, Foster works in mental health as a case manager and is studying for a master's degree in criminal justice at Slippery Rock University.

“I feel that being a Pittsburgh police officer is a great accomplishment,” Foster said. “I would like to show other minority children that the relationship between the community and police can be strengthened.”

Foster said he was sad and angry when he learned he wasn't chosen for a job by Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper's roundtable, one of the final stages in the process.

“The first feeling I had was devastated,” Foster said. “It's like waking up for Christmas and not getting any gifts. My heart dropped out of me.”

Foster was not chosen because he had three warrants for failing to respond to citations and nine moving violations, the lawsuit states. The other plaintiff, Mike Sharp, was not selected because he admitted smoking marijuana between 800 and 1,000 times, it said.

The lawsuit claims there are discriminatory practices at nearly every stage in the application process, including circulating photos of the candidates and current officers assisting their friends and family members in passing oral examinations.

Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, said the oral exams are particularly troubling.

“That's very subjective,” Stevens said. “If you have no black input, no community input, strange things can happen.”

Judy Hill Finegan, director of the department of personnel, said that photos are not included in the information packet the chief and his advisers review, and she said she was not aware of officers receiving information about the candidates before the day of the oral exams.

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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