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Numbers, not arithmetic, the true test for Beach police

The Virginian-Pilot
© February 11, 2006

Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Everybody’s talking numbers this week. That’s because the U.S. Justice Department – in an astonishing act of arrogance – accused the Virginia Beach Police Department of discrimination because it requires all police recruits - black, white and Hispanic - to do basic arithmetic.

Apparently, the feds believe minorities are no good with numbers.

I don’t buy it.

According to stories by Duane Bourne in The Pilot this week, blacks and Hispanics combined make up about

25 per­cent of the population of Virginia Beach. Yet minorities represent only about 16 percent of the police population.

That’s a cause of concern and one the city has been trying to fix – without much success – for several years.

When the bureaucrats in Washington tried to figure out why the Resort City had so few minority members on the police force, the only thing they could find was the math section of the entrance exam, which minorities flunked more often than whites.

Instead of scratching their pointy little federal heads and wondering why some of the candidates have such trouble with arithmetic, and perhaps calling their chums over at the Department of Education, Justice officials blamed the Beach.

Worse, they’ve given the city an ultimatum: Fix the problem, or they’re filing suit.

Let them. This is one case the feds cannot win.

Here’s some free advice to functionaries in the Justice Department: Concentrate on your case against Enron executives, and leave the Beach alone.

But they won’t. Nothing delights a Washington desk jockey more than calling Southerners racist.

To their credit, Beach police officials say they’ll continue minority recruitment – they’ve begun working with Norfolk State University to market the department – but they say they won’t lower their standards.

That sounds good. Unfortunately, it’s not true. The city already has lowered them.

About a year ago, the department added 10 minutes to the 20-minute timed math test. For the math-impaired, that means candidates now have 30 minutes to finish a standardized test that would probably take most of us no more than 15.

That’s not all. The city effectively is tutoring candidates to take the entrance exam through study sessions. According to Harry McBrien, Police Department recruitment officer, the really big news is that in just a few weeks, ECPI College of Technology is going to offer an eight-hour course to prep would-be cops for this 90-minute entrance exam.


What’s next, open books? Phone a friend?

There are many reasons for the low numbers of minority police recruits in Virginia Beach.

Here’s one: Police pay stinks.

As anyone who’s taken Economics 101 can tell you, if you’re having trouble attracting qualified candidates to a job, you’re not paying enough money.

Starting pay for a Beach police recruit is $35,554. Think of all the jobs that pay almost that much. Careers that don’t involve night shifts, weekends and holidays – or dodging bullets.

Given the salary, it’s a miracle there are so many good officers at the Beach. I talk to cops all the time. They aren’t in it for the pay; they love law enforcement.

Then again, the Justice Department’s wacky letter might do some good. It could jar city officials into addressing the simmering problem of police recruitment and retention.

McBrien tells me the department is down 45 police officers. That’s not good.

Memo to City Hall: Pay cops more, and you’ll get more cops.

It’s all about the numbers.

Reach Kerry at (757) 446-2306 or