Earlier this year, African American police officers' groups contended that the Philadelphia Police Department's psychological screening was eliminating a lot of black applicants.
Data recently provided by the department suggest that the critics are right.
From 2011 through 2014, 72.5 percent of the 262 black applicants passed the psych evaluation, compared with 81.2 percent of the 823 white candidates.
Hispanic applicants fell in between, at 75 percent of 176 job-seekers. Applicants of Asian descent fared the worst, at less than 58 percent, but their overall numbers were small - just 66 applicants over the four-year period.
Experts caution that the different passing rates are not necessarily evidence of discrimination. But as police departments nationwide grapple with improving their relations with minority communities, the black officers' groups saw the lower passing rates as a clear cause for concern.
"We're still not on even ground," said David Fisher, president of the National Black Police Association's greater Philadelphia chapter.
Under U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, if an employment screening tool results in a minority racial group being hired at less than four-fifths the rate of the majority, the burden is on the employer to show why that tool is a valid predictor of job success and not discriminatory.
For the Philadelphia police, that means black police candidates would have to pass the psych evaluation at a rate below 65 percent - four-fifths of the 81.2 passing rate for whites.
Asked about the different passing rates, police human resources director Heather McCaffrey said in an email that the department was in the process of improving its psych evaluation.
"The Police Department is constantly evaluating processes for improvement," McCaffrey wrote. "We have hired a chief psychologist who is revamping the psychological testing program in accordance with best practices. As these changes are still ongoing, I cannot go into more detail at this time."
The evaluations are performed by independent psychologists, whom the department declined to identify. In deciding whether a person is fit for duty, a psychologist weighs the candidate's answers on a true-false test of more than 500 questions along with information gleaned from a one-hour interview with the candidate.
The true-false test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, a widely used exam that is designed to tell if the test-taker exhibits any of a wide range of undesirable tendencies: antisocial behavior, rule-breaking, emotional instability, and difficulty in personal relationships, among others.
There is no evidence that the test is racially discriminatory, said Yossef Ben-Porath, a prominent expert on the test and a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio.
However, people of low socioeconomic status may fare worse on certain aspects of the test, if raised in an environment where rule-breaking and challenging authority were commonplace, said David Corey, a Lake Oswego, Ore.-based psychologist who consults for law enforcement agencies across the United States and Canada.
'The whole person'
As a result, it is inappropriate to use the true-false test by itself as a screening tool, Ben-Porath and Corey said. Some of the true-false questions probe the applicant's history of conduct problems, so a skilled psychologist would then use the interview to determine whether any such tendencies were still an issue, they said.
"It's important to look at the whole person," Corey said. "Are these a reflection of contemporary problems? Or are these a reflection of past problems?"
Applicants who fail Philadelphia's psych evaluation are allowed to try again, but they must start from scratch, repeating all other phases of the application process. The department's figures do not indicate how many, if any, of the applicants from 2011 to 2014 were repeat candidates.
The lower passing rates among black applicants indicate the need for scrutiny of the psychologists who do the interviews, said Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of black police officers in Philadelphia.
"Who is this company? Is it diverse?" asked Bilal, whose group includes African American as well as Asian officers as members.
No appeal process
Concern about the evaluation was first raised in a July article in the Philadelphia Daily News. At that time, the department said about 57 percent of its 6,300 members were white, 33 percent were black, 8 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian and other races. But since Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, blacks have accounted for 248 of 1,229 new hires as of July - just 20.2 percent of the total.
The department attributed the lower percentage of black hires in part to lower interest amid the national news about fatal encounters between police and minority civilians.
The Inquirer first asked for the data on the psych evaluation passing rates in July; the department said it responded as quickly as possible.
Applicants who fail the psych evaluation are not given a reason, and there is no appeal process, as Ayanna Holloway found out this year.
The 22-year-old successfully cleared all the other hurdles required for entrance to the police academy, including a physical exam and a reading test. But within 10 minutes of undergoing the psych evaluation in April, she got a phone call saying she did not make it.
"Some of the questions are repeated, but they switch the words around," Holloway said. "It's really tricky. There are a lot of questions about your feelings, like what would you do in this or that scenario?"
Rather than try again, Holloway opted to return to school, studying digital forensics at Chestnut Hill College.
Briannah Hawkins, another recent applicant who did not pass the psych screening, vowed to try again.
"I'm not going to let it defeat me," she said. "I don't believe a 500-question test can be the basis of whether people are going to be good cops or not."
Like many police departments, Philadelphia uses a true-false test called the MMPI-2 to evaluate the psychological fitness of officer candidates. The questions are not made public, but two unsuccessful applicants confirmed that the following, posted in an online forum, were among more than 500 questions when they took the test:
At times I feel like smashing things.
I like to read newspaper articles on crime.
I am sure I get a raw deal from life.