On Friday, 102 men and women are expected to walk across the stage at the State Police training academy in Sea Girt, collect their badges and join the ranks of New Jersey’s top law enforcement agency.
This latest batch of graduating troopers looks like many of the previous classes, but less and less like the state they will serve. Seventy-nine of the 102 are white men.
Seven years and millions of dollars after the State Police conceded their minority recruiting efforts were “significantly flawed” and pledged improvement, the race and gender makeup of the rank and file remains effectively unchanged.
A Star-Ledger analysis of recruiting data since 1999 shows more minorities and women than ever are applying for the force but are being rejected because they fail admission tests at disproportionately higher rates.
This rejection, according to the newspaper’s analysis, occurs at various stages of the multitiered selection process: Hispanics and black candidates failed the background check at least three times more often than white applicants; women were nearly three times as likely as men to fail the physical; seven in 10 black applicants didn’t pass the written test.
Why the failures persist and how to fix them have perplexed four successive attorneys general and four State Police superintendents. And they linger despite an overhaul of the recruiting and testing process, the hiring of outside consultants to grade applicants, and regular monitoring by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sued the state a decade ago to address the issue.
In the past decade, the state’s minority population has steadily risen and now hovers near 35 percent. By 2025, Census estimates indicate, almost half of New Jersey’s residents will be members of minorities.
Today white males account for one-third of the state’s population. But they make up four-fifths of the 2,966 active members of the State Police force, a rate only slightly lower than the racial makeup in 1999.
“I’m not saying these (recruiting) efforts are for nil,” said Renee Steinhagen, executive director of New Jersey Appleseed, a public-interest law center, and a longtime critic of the State Police. “But they’re not where they should be. I still believe the State Police has not changed.”
State officials, law enforcement experts and the advocates who brought the initial NAACP lawsuit acknowledge the lack of success but haven’t been able to explain or fix it.
State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said he needs to look no further than “who is walking across the stage and who I’m handing the badge to. I’m always going to look at that as my barometer of success or failure. It says we can be doing a lot better.”
AN INFAMOUS HISTORY
Police departments across the country have long struggled to attract and retain qualified minority candidates. The Indiana State Police this year lowered their educational standards to allow high school graduates to apply. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the police department advertised on buses with routes in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
Those changes are not always voluntary: Virginia Beach, Va., police retooled the math portion of its entry exam this spring after the U.S. Justice Department concluded the test was unfair to minorities. And Delaware last summer paid $1.4 million to settle claims its state police test discriminated against African-Americans.
“The crisis is universal—and it is universal at the local, state and federal level,” said Jason Abend, executive director of the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association. “It’s just more obvious at the State Police level because you’re talking about a smaller group with more elite standards.”
New Jersey’s history runs deeper than most. For nearly two decades, from 1975 to 1992, the State Police hiring process was shaped by a consent decree with federal civil rights monitors that required the force to increase minority representation to 14 percent. But after the decree ended, the percentage of minority applicants and rookie troopers steadily fell.
Most critics of past hiring practices say they believe the state has tried to fulfill its promises but has not found the answers to boosting the percentage of minorities and women on the force.
“They’ve made the effort, whether or not they have really succeeded,” said the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey. But, he added, “It seems we’re right back where we started. The State Police and the minority community have to do a better job of recruiting better candidates and those who do apply have to better prepare themselves.”
Becoming a New Jersey state trooper is a complicated and drawn-out process. Those who make it receive a uniform, a gun, an assignment and a starting salary of $53,576, plus benefits and a pension.
According to The Star-Ledger’s analysis of State Police applicants and training academy graduates from the past seven years, 19,723 people applied to join the force. Of that number, 1,471 ultimately made the cut and 1,349 decided to report to the academy. No two classes of applicants were the same, but white men were two to three times more likely than their female or minority counterparts to be standing at the end of the process.
Roughly 4,300 of the applicants were rejected immediately because they lacked the required education and experience—at least 60 college credits and at least two years of full-time employment or active duty military service. And of those deemed qualified, 2,900—or nearly 19 percent—declined an invitation to compete for an academy slot.
The remaining applicants faced written, physical, medical and psychological tests—plus a background check that scrutinized their personal, financial and work histories.
Failing in any one area means immediate disqualification. Completing them all typically takes nine months and guarantees enrollment in the 25-week training academy, as part of a class that can range from 30 students to more than 100. Some prospective troopers wait months for their class to start.
“It’s a highly selective, very competitive process,” said Deputy Attorney General David Rebuck.
Since 1999, more than half the prospective candidates of all races failed the first hurdle, a 3 1/2-hour battery of written questions and video scenarios that measure responses in possible job situations. White men, however, consistently fared better than their counterparts in that test, failing only half the time, compared with 63 percent for everybody else.
Star Folgosi, a 26-year-old sheriff’s officer in Cape May County, failed the written test once but hopes to take it again. She said she’s not deterred by the State Police’s history.
“If that stopped me, I guess this career would have stopped me in general,” Folgosi said at a recruiting session last month at the State Police headquarters in West Trenton. “That’s anywhere. It’s not just police work.”