The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the Maryland State Police to determine if the agency engaged in racially discriminatory hiring and promotion practices, federal prosecutors announced Friday.
Word of the investigation follows a series of complaints from Black troopers about harassment and mistreatment by fellow white officers, concerns that drew the attention of a Maryland state legislator last year.
“Discrimination has no place in any workplace, and especially in law enforcement agencies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a news release. “Our investigation will determine whether the Maryland Department of State Police has created racially discriminatory barriers for Black people seeking job opportunities and promotions and, if so, identify the reforms necessary to ensure equal employment opportunities.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Woodrow W. Jones III have been informed and pledged cooperation with the investigation, the news release said.
“Significant actions have been taken and are continuing to address even the perception of racism or unfair treatment of any kind,” Jones said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
Hogan’s office issued a statement calling Maryland State Police “the finest police organization in the country.” He said the state has committed funds to increase diversity and strengthen recruitment.
“It is important to ensure any wrongdoing is addressed, so we welcome this investigation and have pledged full cooperation,” said Michael Ricci, spokesperson for the governor’s office.
In 2021, Maryland State Sen. Joanne Benson of Prince George’s County said Black troopers accused the agency of racism and discrimination, pointing to disparities in discipline and promotions, as well as underrepresentation and allegations of instances of retaliation.
Benson met with more than 20 Black troopers who presented her with documents detailing their claims, WRC in Washington reported in February 2021. The television station did not identify the troopers because those who spoke out are violating department policy.
“They had the paperwork. They had the proof,” Benson said. “They had done their homework relative to the incidents that have occurred and the problems they were experiencing.”
Benson said Friday afternoon that the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus has been trying to draw attention to the problem of racism and discrimination within the state police for at least eight years. She said that after there was no significant progress, some of the troopers decided to take their case to the Department of Justice.
“What they have done to African American state troopers … has been shameful,” Benson said. “The discipline, the unfair suspensions, the terminations, the way that they discipline the African American state troopers over the white ones has just been unbelievable.”
Statistics provided by Maryland State Police and reported by WRC showed Black officers make up 8.9% of high-ranking commissioned officers and 11% of the agency’s non-commissioned officers, with very few rising to lieutenants.
Clarke F. Ahlers, a Maryland attorney who is representing Black troopers in several lawsuits against the state police, said he welcomes the Justice Department investigation.
“My belief is that the Maryland State Police have engaged in an unfortunate process of discriminating against troopers of color,” Ahlers said.
“I would not need a Justice Department investigation to convince me of racial discrimination within the ranks of the Maryland State Police,” he said.
Ahlers said he’s had four cases in the last five years that “screamed of discrimination” by the agency, although none was directly related to hiring or promotions. One of them involved a case which went in the favor of the trooper, who, Ahlers said, is still dealing with harassment from the department.
In another case, Ahlers said he represented a Black trooper who used minimal force in arresting a motorist. He and other officers involved were cleared in the incident. Afterward, a white trooper left a banana on the Black trooper’s car, Ahlers said.
The Black trooper complained about that act, and after he refused to withdraw the complaint, he was indicted for first-degree assault for the use of force, Ahlers said. The charge was eventually dropped by the State’s Attorney’s Office. As for the initial complaint about the banana being placed on his car, Maryland State Police said it had nothing to do with race, according to Ahlers.
The spelling of Clarke F. Ahlers’ first name has been corrected.