Black man standing next to police car

Retied Columbus police officer and officer recruiter Anthony Wilson (PhD), who also served as Assistant Chief of Westerville Police at the end of his law enforcement career.

The struggle to make the Columbus Division of Police reflect the racial make-up of urban neighborhoods goes back nearly 50 years and perhaps longer. But even though federal lawsuits and demands to have more African Americans on the force have been ongoing for more than half-a-century, the number of Black Columbus police officers is still woefully short compared to the number of African-American residents.

Columbus police union’s FOP President Keith Ferrell has said “systemic racism” does not plague the division, but there is too much evidence showing the division’s hiring process has historically “removed many good Black officers,” several current and retired African-American Columbus police officers told the Free Press.

One question these officers raised is: Have Black and People of Color candidates been removed deliberately by systemic racism or is implicit bias to blame?

The Black officers told the Free Press they agree both factors have played a role in keeping their numbers down.

Some of these officers refused to remain silent and began pressing commanding officers for change to the hiring process – in some cases, more than a decade ago.

Anthony Wilson (PhD) has 30 years of law enforcement service, which includes roughly eight years as an officer recruiter for Columbus police.  Wilson, who is African American, ended his law enforcement career as Assistant Chief of Westerville Police. During his time as a recruiter for Columbus Police, Wilson became so concerned over the hiring process he began sending letters (from 2011 to 2013) telling commanding officers the process was “uneven towards certain candidates” and should be updated.

One of those commanding officers he sent letters to was former Chief Kim Jacobs. But no serious action was taken to remedy any of his concerns.

“At one point we (fellow recruiters) determined that 25 percent of African American candidates were removed at every stage, every step of the process. That’s from testing, to the polygraph, to the actual background investigation, to the oral board, to the Department of Public Safety’s determination,” Wilson told the Free Press.

Wilson then reached out to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Office in Cleveland and OSU’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity to audit and vet the hiring process. The Kirwan Institute reviewed part of the process and agreed there was “potential for creating a disparate impact.”

After reaching out to the Kirwan Institute, however, Wilson was told by his supervisor at the time, current Chief Thomas Quinlan, “to not contact either or work with either ever again.” At that time, Quinlan was Training Bureau Commander.

Wilson wants everyone to know – he had no say in the final decision to hire minority or female officers, or any officer for that matter. He was strictly a recruiter.

The percentage of Black officers on the force has hung around 11 percent over the previous decade – yet the Black population of Columbus is currently at 28 percent.

This is significant because federal discrimination lawsuits filed against the division in the 1970s by Black officers resulted in U.S. District Court Judges, such as Judge Robert Duncan, to mandate the division have the same percentage of Black officers in relation to number of Black residents. Judge Duncan ruled the division must reach this Black resident threshold – which at the time was 18.5 percent – by 1980.

“The division reached that percentage (18.5 percent) by 1980, but when they did, they just stopped,” says Lt. Melissa McFadden, a long-time veteran of Columbus police who is African American.

In 1988, says McFadden, Judge Duncan’s court order was lifted.

“We’ve been going backwards ever since. Now it’s 11 percent,” she says.

What is persistently aggravating for these officers is how the Mayor’s Office, City Council, and the division have been urging young Black residents for decades to join the force. 

“It’s a façade,” says Lt. McFadden.

The Free Press has repeatedly asked Columbus police spokesperson Sgt. James Fuqua this summer for a response to many stories, but we have not heard back.

Wilson says during his time as a recruiter, the perception some had about his job was the division was doing all it could to bring in Black officers. Again, he had no power in the final decision to hire an officer.

“Recruiting-wise, you can get the people in the process, but getting them to the academy is completely out of your hands. That’s when the culture takes over. That’s what I always say,” said Wilson.

When an academy class graduates, says Wilson, and there’s a minimum number of Blacks and females, usually there’s someone, whether it’s the Chief or the Mayor’s Office, who will say, “We need to do a better job recruiting.”

He always shook his head in disgust.

“When people blame recruiting, it’s not that. Recruiting has done a great job. I have done, we have done, a great job recruiting Blacks to take the test,” he said. “But then they are removed out of the process at an alarming rate.”

There are many phases or stages of the Columbus police hiring process – arguably too many “layers,” believes Wilson.

“I think there is a lot of implicit bias in this process that has caused the removal of a significant number of qualified Black candidates,” said Wilson. “I wrote a lot of letters about some of the issues in the hiring process to (former) Chief Jacobs.”

First, the testing phase involves multiple choice questions, writing and a physical fitness test, and some candidates don’t pass, says Wilson.

If a candidate passes the initial testing, an extensive background check follows, which includes a polygraph later. Those conducting the backgrounds are retired Columbus police officers, some former detectives who were hired back, and many were white.

This background investigation requires a candidate to fill out a second, more detailed application, where you are “listing your life history,” says Wilson.

“What will happen is some people will be removed for not meeting the deadline, but there’s been some questions whether they met the deadline. Some people have said they turned theirs in on time, but then they receive a letter stating it was not received,” said Wilson. “This has happened to Black candidates who I knew should have been on the force.”

After the background investigation comes a critical juncture – an interview with what many call the “oral board,” an intense “interrogation process,” by three current Columbus Police officers and a city human resources employee, which votes to remove or allow a candidate to go forward.

This is when the hiring process, says Wilson, “is about subjectivity.”

After the oral board approves a candidate, the candidate’s application is passed on to the chain of command and the Safety Director’s office, where a retired former high-ranking Columbus police commanding officer scrutinizes candidates.

This is where the retired high-ranking commanding officer applies Civil Service Rule IX to applicants, says Wilson, when, in simple terms, the candidate is compared to three other candidates, and if they “still don’t look good, is put off to the side.”

“This person is the final decider. There’s no checks-and-balances here. One person is making this decision. This is what we (fellow recruiters) called the ‘eye test.’ It was unofficial,” he says.

Wilson says in his letters to Chief Jacob addressing an “uneven” and an “unfair” hiring process, he never mentioned the word “discrimination.”

“If I did that then I would probably have been removed from that position, and I felt like I was in a position where I could really make a difference in the process. Nobody wants a handout, we just want it to be fair,” he said.

In one letter to former Chief Jacob, he told her there were too many incidents of background investigators (retired Columbus police officers) who were turning a blind-eye to past behavior by some white candidates and favoring candidates who were police officer’s relatives.

In his letter to Chief Jacob he stated, “A recruit in the 118th recruit class conveyed to me and the entire class that he was told by an (background) investigator that they were processing police officer relatives ahead of everyone else. This was not the first time a recruiter had been advised of alleged preferential treatment given to police officer friends and relatives.”

For example, Wilson became aware of a white male candidate who had passed the background investigation, and subsequently deemed by the oral board as “Above Average,” meaning his chances of making the force were strong. But Wilson decided to take a deeper look into the candidate’s background and found he had been terminated from the Franklin County’s Sheriff’s Office for failing to successfully complete his probationary period.

“I went back a little further in (his) background packet and found that the candidate was the son-in-law of a detective,” he says.

During his years as a recruiter, Wilson and his fellow recruiters often spoke amongst themselves and questioned why too many Black and female candidates were being removed. That’s when they realized 25 percent of African-American candidates were being removed at each stage.

“We did everything we could to cut into that 25 percent,” he added.

At the time, his fellow recruiters were another male Black officer and an Asian female officer. All three have left the division.

“After I left the division for Westerville, the Asian woman was still trying to raise issues about the process, and it got so bad for her she left. She had thirteen years in. She saw the flaws in the process that eliminated people unnecessarily,” he said.

Wilson says the Columbus police hiring process is archaic and driven by the current “culture.”

“First, we need to audit the process and remove as much subjectivity as possible. The other part is, we need to use data – everybody is using data. What’s happening to all these recruits? Why is this happening? How come we haven’t gone back ten years, and said, ‘This is where we are losing them and this is what we need to do,’” he said.

Wilson believes more City of Columbus human resource employees should be involved in the hiring process. Furthermore, the interviews should be standardized and not so focused on a candidate’s past and background. Wilson was raised in the Southfield community and graduated from Marion-Franklin High School.

“If you have male whites throughout the entire process, who may be displaying implicit bias in their judgement, they may not even realize they are doing it, but it’s still happening,” he says.

Wilson says compared to other Ohio police divisions of similar size, those divisions don’t have as many “layers” in the hiring process compared to Columbus. He says the oral board stage – an intense interrogation which has resulted in some candidates breaking down in tears – is not necessary.

“They have already been through testing, a polygraph test, then a background investigation. At that point I should be finished. I shouldn’t go to an oral board. Then I shouldn’t have to go to the Safety Director’s office to be removed. To many layers, and at each layer, people are going to be knocked out of the process. Now, let’s factor in implicit bias,” he said.