Police and Promotions


I know the last thing on your mind right now is how bureaucratic corruption will affect your police career. But, at some point in your police career, you'll probably become a victim of that corruption, and you'll wonder why you didn't see it coming.

Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.

Police and promotions can be synonymous with police and corruption where merit based testing is subjugated to manipulated subjective measures. You’ll soon learn that corruption comes in a variety of forms. Some forms are obvious while others are subtle and cloaked in altruistic rhetoric. 

I cringe when I hear a politician attempt to weaken a civil service process by saying that merit should be given more consideration than a civil service examination. What does that politician think a civil service examination is based on?

You really can’t expect politicians to appreciate civil service. True, politicians passed the laws to create civil service, but they had little choice. When public service corruption reaches an intolerable level, even politicians have to do the right thing…to a point.

Examination – Police and Promotions

Let’s look at a couple of ways civil service examinations can be administered by your police department. In the first example, we have a written examination which consists of 70% of your final score. The written examination consists solely of multiple choice questions that measures what you know and what you don’t know. Some people ridicule multiple choice testing, because such questions leave no room for other points of view. Sorry, an objective examination is not looking for your subjective point of view.

Okay, you’ve taken your written examination for police sergeant, and you’ve scored well. As a matter of fact, you’re number 20 out of the top 100 candidates who made the cut. Now, you’re on your way to the oral interview. You’ll have three people interviewing you. The three interviewers are all police officers of various higher ranks from police departments outside your jurisdiction. They may introduce themselves by name and rank, or they may not. You will not introduce yourself; because these people aren’t supposed to know your name. Any oral interview is tough, but this is as good as it gets.


This time, when you take the test, you score the same position of 20 out of 100 on the written examination. But, this time, the written portion of the test is only worth 30% of your final score. This time, your interviewers for the oral examination are all higher ranking police officers from within your own police department. There’s no need for them to introduce themselves, because you already know them. They may, or may not, know you; however, your concern should be how many of the other 99 candidates they do know.

You see, the politician’s idea of merit police promotions is best accomplished under the second example. Politicians, and those police officers, who move into the politically appointed higher ranks of police departments have unflinching faith in their own subjective judgements. Sure, they’ll claim to be objective, but could you really believe them? The truth is, people frequently need help with objectivity. Whenever a process can be implemented to ensure maximum objectivity, it’s a good thing.

Manipulation is the Goal- Police and Promotions

If I had my way, every police promotions’ examination would consist entirely of a written examination. The questions would be multiple choices, and the wrong answers would not be too obvious. There would be a lot more than a hundred, or so, questions. Five hundred questions would be the minimum, and they’d cover every area of knowledge applicable to the position.

Talk about a level playing field. Of course, those who always talk about the level playing field would be those howling the loudest if anyone tried to implement such a comprehensive written police promotions’ examination without any accompanying process more prone to manipulation.

When I first took the examination for police sergeant, the written portion consisted of 50%; the oral interview was 30%, and you could receive a maximum of 5 percentage points for seniority. The remaining 15 percentage points came in the form of a commander’s rating. The top eighty (80) candidates from the written test would go on to compete under the additional criteria.

As then, most departments now permit police officers to take the police sergeant’s promotional examination after three (3) years of service. Under this system, the three year police officer would immediately lose two percentage points; a four year police officer one point. At the five year mark you’d get your five free points.

Commander’s Rating

The seniority part could be overcome if one did exceptionally well on the written and oral portions of the examination. The first to last candidate on the final list was rarely separated by more than 3 percentage points. The last thing to come was the commander’s rating. What a crock. Your Commander had the ability to sink you by simply rating you as excellent with 14 points as opposed to outstanding with the full 15 points.

Now, think about this for a moment. If a written examination determines who will go on to all the other hoops a process has to negotiate, why not just expand the written portion to further identify those who are the most qualified for police promotions. After all, what’s so bad about having police officers in leadership positions that actually have the knowledge to do the job? The tried and tired response to that is, and always will be, some police officers are just good test takers while others aren’t.

The true response is that police promotions is a very big deal, and competitive examinations for police promotions are okay as long as there’s a way to manipulate the outcome; the more room for manipulation the better. The simple fact is it’s all about power and consolidation of power. It’s okay if a police officer promoted has knowledge, but it’s more important for that police officer to be known, and acceptable, to those in power.


With the wisdom of hindsight, I can say that promotion to police sergeant should require a minimum of ten years’ experience as a patrol officer. You don’t have to worry about that ever happening, because seniority as a requirement, or benefit, for anything is dead and gone. Any person, in any organization who moves up rapidly, faces difficulties supervising people with more work experience. In police work, those difficulties are vast and varied and magnified under real crisis situations.

At this point, you simply can’t appreciate how many ways you can get into trouble. As a police supervisor with minimal work experience those ways are only multiplied by the number of police officers under your supervision. You’re already at some disadvantage since you’ll be entering a police work force loaded with young police supervisors with limited experience. 

That youth and limited experience even extends into the highest ranks of many departments. Power and patronage can be just as corrupt when practiced by young leaders as well as by older ones. It’s just that the older ones are more experienced at keeping corrupt practices under control.

Corruption- Police and Promotions

Look… I know the last thing on your mind right now is how bureaucratic corruption will affect your police career. But, at some point in your police career, you’ll probably become a victim of that corruption, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t see it coming.

Politicians would like to convince everyone that civil service is the reason why things are screwed up at every level of government. They ignore the years of continual dilution and manipulation of civil service by corrupt and politically motivated practices as the real reasons for incompetence and inefficiency within the systems of government.

Instead of calling for a strengthening of civil service rules based on real measures of merit, their goal is the total elimination of competitive competition in favor of their superior subjective evaluations of people.

Subjective Process

If you think it’s difficult now being hired as a police officer, imagine what your chances would be like under a totally, or near total, subjective process. In one system suggested, you’d be classified as “unqualified, qualified, highly qualified, or most qualified.” Do these terms sound familiar? United States Supreme Court Justice Nominees used to receive similar ratings from the American Bar Association. But, of course, everybody knows that politics has nothing to do with those ratings.

What a joke; although, funny it’s not. “Unqualified” is obvious to any idiot. “Qualified” and “highly qualified” are superfluous and useless terms since “most qualified” is obviously the only term that counts. Of course, you do need a couple of feel good categories to please everyone who never had a shot in the first place.

True Story about Police and Promotions

A police sergeant was awaiting his promotion to lieutenant. His position on the final scored civil service list ensured his elevation on the first round of police promotions. However, the police chief had the authorization to skip a certain number of people for promotion, and the sergeant found he to be a victim of the chief’s arbitrary and capricious use of a power for which he wasn’t even required to provide an explanation.

The sergeant requested a meeting with the chief. To the sergeant’s surprise, and the chief’s credit, the chief accepted the sergeant’s request. The sergeant had prepared extensive documentation detailing his qualifications for promotion which he presented to the chief. The chief did a perfunctory review of the documentation feigning interest; after which, the sergeant simply ask the chief, “Why did you skip me for promotion?” Although the sergeant was seated, he nearly fell from his chair when the chief answered, “Nobody spoke up for you.”

It took a few seconds for the sergeant to verify to himself he’d heard the chief correctly. The sergeant then asked, “Who is nobody?” The chief went on to explain his process; wherein, his colonels made the determination of who would be skipped for promotion. The sergeant then asked, “Who spoke against me?” This time the sergeant was firmly seated in his chair when the chief replied that no one had spoken against him.

Everybody is Equal

The sergeant, remaining calm and respectful, stated his disbelief of a process wherein a person is “blackballed through silence.” The chief, taking on the tone a “Dutch Uncle” said, “Look, Sarge, you’ve got to understand that everyone that high on the list is equal.” The sergeant couldn’t believe the unadulterated nonsense he was hearing. However, the sergeant theoretically accepted the chief’s premise that everyone was equal. The sergeant then pointed out that the mathematical ranking of candidates, provided by the Civil Service Commission, ensured fairness to all of the “equally qualified” candidates.

Needless to say, that chief never again met with anyone he would skip for police promotions. This instance demonstrates what little protection already exists for fair and qualified advancement even under civil service. The simple truth, in this instance, is that there were a finite number of lieutenant positions available, and friends or friends of friends of the colonels were farther down on the list.

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