Through the 1970s and 1980s, the Law Center partnered with the Guardian Civic League in efforts to reform the Philadelphia Police Department, and ending discriminatory hiring practices on the force for minorities and female applicants was one of our primary goals. As a result of our work, the percentage of African Americans in Philadelphia’s force increased from 12% to 35%, and the percentage of women increased to 25%.
Commonwealth v. O’Neill (1973)
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania brought this class action in 1970, alleging that the Philadelphia Police Department’s hiring and promotion policies discriminated illegally against black applicants and officers. We intervened on behalf of the Guardian Civic League.
The suit challenged the use of a written exam that disproportionately eliminated minority applicants and had never been shown to accurately predict performance as a police officer. (The exam was also used to evaluate officers for promotions.) In addition, the lawsuit argued that the Department used discriminatory background checks and evaluations to disqualify black applicants.
After gathering evidence, the plaintiffs asked the court to stop the discriminatory hiring practices while the case continued. The judge agreed and ordered the Police Department to ensure that the proportion of African American new hires at least equaled the proportion of African American applicants. Soon after, the city decided to settle the lawsuit. In the resulting consent decree, the city agreed to adopt non-discriminatory hiring policies and to develop new evaluations proven to accurately predict job performance.
Brace v. Philadelphia (1974)
In 1974, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Penelope Brace seeking reinstatement in the Police Department and an end to discriminatory policies excluding women from almost every part of the police force. (Women were only allowed to work as juvenile aids at the time.) A week after we filed the case, the U.S. Justice Department filed another case arguing that the policies violated the Constitution and civil rights laws, and the cases were consolidated. Trial began in 1976, after which the judge ordered the hiring of 100 female officers and a two-year study of their performance.
Upon completion of the study, the judge rejected the City’s argument that women were unable to competently serve as police officers, and further found that the Police Department’s strict height requirement discriminated illegally against women. Rather than continuing to litigate, the two sides then reached an agreement. The resulting consent decree ended hiring policies that discriminated against women, gave the Court continuing oversight of proposed hiring practices, and provided back pay to the individual women involved in the case.
Freeman v. City of Philadelphia (1990)
Following the O’Neill consent decree, Philadelphia adopted a new written exam developed by a professional testing company to evaluate applicants. The new test, however, was little better than the previous exam used: it discriminated against African American applicants, and it was never demonstrated to accurately predict job performance.
On behalf of African American applicants, we filed suit against the City in 1990, and negotiations quickly led to the adoption of a consent decree reached later that year. The agreement required the hiring of African Americans in proportion to their representation in the applicant pool. The Fraternal Order of Police intervened in the case, vigorously opposed to the agreement, and appealed. The order approving the agreement was upheld in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case.