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Judge lifts '89 order on police hiring; Ruling in Buffalo desegregation suit may point to end of Curtin's oversight

There was a time when the federal courts viewed Buffalo's police hiring as highly discriminatory.

And one of the chief culprits, in the eyes of the courts, was the written exam used to select new officers.

But a federal judge late last week lifted a 22-year-old court order requiring the city to use an alternative hiring process.

"It's a great day for everybody," said Paul Saunders, a lawyer for the Afro-American Police Association of Buffalo, one of the groups suing the city. "My clients are very pleased with the result. And we congratulate the city."

A lawyer for the city also hailed U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin's decision and suggested it might be the first step in ending Curtin's oversight of the department.

Curtin has overseen the desegregation case, believed to be the oldest ongoing federal court case in the region, since it began in 1973.

"We think it's a huge deal," said Adam Perry, a lawyer for the city. "We also think it's a prelude to the court discharging its supervision of entry-level police hiring in Buffalo."

In ending his 1989 order on hiring, Curtin gave the city permission to use the results of its written exam in April. The judge also required the use of a scoring system designed to protect against future discrimination.

Curtin's original order was based on his determination that the city's written test put minorities at a serious disadvantage.

Several groups, including the Afro-American Police Association, also argued that the old exam consistently resulted in minorities scoring lower than others.

Saunders thinks the new test, along with the new scoring system, will go a long way toward improving diversity in the Police Department.

"This is the first time in 35 years that the city has been able to do this," he said.

Curtin's order is also an indication that the government -- the U.S. Justice Department is among those suing the city -- believes that Buffalo's new exams will not result in the disparate treatment of blacks, Hispanics and women.

"We believe," Perry said, "that this is an indication that the city's testing effort is in compliance with the law."

Saunders was quick to note that, while it took the city decades to come up with a new selection process, it never wavered in its desire to end its discriminatory practices.

"We never differed on the goal," he said.

The emphasis on improving minority representation in the Police Department dates back to 1973 when the lawsuit was filed and 1978 when Curtin ordered the Police and Fire departments to desegregate.

From the beginning, Curtin's goal was to develop a police force with a percentage of minority officers equal to the percentage of minorities in the city's population.

The result was a minority-recruitment plan that required half of all Police Department hires be minorities and 25 percent be women. The court also required that 50 percent of all new firefighters in the city be minorities.

Over the next 10 years, the city hired hundreds of blacks, Hispanics and women and, in 1989, Curtin ruled the city had "substantially complied" with his orders.

At the time, he modified his hiring guidelines by imposing a new "applicant-flow" process. The new system required that each new class of police officers would include a percentage of blacks, Hispanics and women equal to the respective percentages of those groups who took the written exam.

Curtin, despite his most recent order on hiring, is continuing his oversight of the Police Department.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com