Police promotion test error leads to 'tangle' of legal issues

Posted at 7:48 PM, Sep 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-26 19:48:45-04

CINCINNATI -- Problems are continuing to spiral out from grading errors on an exam for police sergeants seeking promotion, even as city officials are working to correct the mistake.

A vendor hired by the city made errors scoring the exam, which is used to create a list of candidates eligible for promotion to lieutenant. Similar exams are used for candidates seeking promotions to other ranks in the department.

Two police officers, Michelle Lehman and Eric Schank, were scheduled for promotion to sergeant on July 31, before the list of eligible candidates from the previous test expired, but the promotions were postponed due to the grading errors on the proposed lieutenants list, according to a memo last month from Police Chief Eliot Isaac.

There were no problems with the grading of the sergeant exam.

Isaac recommending promoting Lehman and Schank anyway by "double-filling" two sergeant positions "in order to alleviate any future grievance or legal actions," he wrote.

However, the city and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #69 were already embroiled in a federal lawsuit before the test scoring error. In February, city officials announced their intent to add new captain, lieutenant and sergeant positions. In response, the FOP filed a complaint to stop the city from increasing the number of positions until after the current eligible lists expired.

Lists of candidates eligible for promotion in the department are only good for a year. Anyone still seeking a promotion after a year will have to take the test again. 

In a previous court case over promotions, lawyers for the FOP noted concerns that that the creation of new positions could be timed so as to inappropriately benefit friends of officials if they were on the then-current list.

When the FOP filed to stop the city from adding more positions in February, a judge agreed and signed an order. But the FOP apparently had no issue with the promotions for Lehman and Schank.

"They would've been promoted if everything would have fallen in the natural order," FOP President Dan Hils said. "This is a very unusual situation."

Last week, the Sentinel Police Association, a group of black officers who "address discriminatory practices, policies and procedures," filed to intervene in the FOP's lawsuit. They said that the previous court order should also bar double-filling positions, as that would effectively be adding the new positions that the judge had ordered the city not to add.

Sentinels President Eddie Hawkins said they were concerned that there was a racial element to the questions about the test results.

"On this exam, there were minorities on the top of the list when it was looked into," Hawkins said. "On the exams prior, when people questioned it there were not minorities that topped the list."

Now the Sentinels are seeking a restraining order against the promotions for Lehman and Schank, who are both white, because they say they will have no legal remedy if the double-fill sergeant promotions are made.

"At the end of the day, the organization just wants to be treated fairly," Hawkins said. "We want our members to be treated fairly. We want the same policies and procedures to be applied across the board."

Judge Melba Marsh has not made a ruling yet, calling the case "a tangle." Monday, she decided to give the parties a couple more weeks to work on settling the case.

In the meantime, city officials have also been working to correct the testing mistakes. Last week, City Manager Harry Black informed the mayor and council members of the police department's plan to add two captain positions and six sergeant positions.

The city has also hired a new firm to correct the grading errors made by the previous vendor.