Catherine Rinaldi

MTA ON WRONG TRACK: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has terminated its contract for polygraph screenings of Police Officer candidates after the man who was administering them had sent racist texts. The head of the agency’s largest police union questioned the value of such testing, which he noted was not admissible in court and slowed the hiring process at a time when the agency is losing officers in unusually high numbers.

The president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's largest police union believes that the agency's continued use of polygraph exams for pre-employment screening—which came under fire because of racist texts by a private contractor who administered them—is a waste of time.

"For many years we have been telling the MTA this was expensive, unnecessary, unscientific and doesn't even hold up in court," said MTA Police Benevolent Association President Mike O'Meara during a Nov. 18 interview. "It qualifies bad candidates and disqualifies good candidates. It adds unnecessary time to the hiring process at a time when the competition for the smaller pool of people who want to become police officers is growing nationally."

Cites Disillusionment

He said that with an ever-tightening labor market, management should re-evaluate the use of the polygraph at a time when some union members were opting to leave the force due in part to "anti-police sentiment" combined with "pandemic and vaccine fatigue."

"We are even seeing some of our younger members opting to retire early and head to places like South Carolina and Florida where there are no vaccine mandates," he said. "I saw a County Sheriff's office in Florida offered a $5,000 bonus and $4,000 moving expenses."

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Mr. O'Meara's comments came in response to an inquiry the MTA's use of a polygraph contractor who allegedly sent racist texts, which the Daily News reported surfaced in an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against the agency brought by NYPD Officer Jonathan Carter, who had sought an MTA Police Officer job.

Mr. Carter, who is African American, claimed he was turned down after failing the polygraph test.

'White-Coat Syndrome'

According his attorney, Peter Crusco, Mr. Carter got "an accommodation from the MTA Medical Board for white-coat syndrome, a recognized medical condition where in just by walking into certain clinical settings, your biometrics are affected, which the polygraph monitors, yet in my client's case the polygrapher didn't account for that at all."

Mr. Carter claims that in addition to the MTA's failure to provide the medical accommodation as legally required, he was subject to race-based discrimination.

On Nov. 12, the MTA canceled all future examinations by the company under a contract set to end early next year.

"We are committed to a diverse and discrimination-free hiring process and to employing officers who reflect the communities they serve and protect from Poughkeepsie to Montauk," said Tim Minton, the MTA's Communications Director. "Racism and bigotry in any form are never acceptable and are inconsistent with the values of the MTA."

At a Nov. 17 press briefing, MTA Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber, denied his agency's police force hiring was racially discriminatory.

'Diverse, Getting More So'

"Forty-five percent of the MTA police force is non-white. So it's not the uniformed services of 10, 12 or 15 years ago—the pattern that sometimes resulted in litigation to diversify uniformed services," Mr. Lieber said. "This is a force that is on the way. There is no reason to declare victory. You want a diverse police force especially but there is a significant diversity on the MTA police force."

According to the MTA, 56 percent of its 1,100 Police Officers are white as compared to the NYPD, where 45 percent of the uniformed force is white.

Members of the MTA PD Guardians, the fraternal group for black agency police officers, told the News that "candidates of color" are most often "first-generation" applicants who don't have the family connections that are common in law enforcement across the country.

"There's a large amount of nepotism and cronyism within most law-enforcement agencies," Jaraad Hakim, the treasurer for the MTA PD Guardians, told the newspaper.

'Getting the Word Out'

"Every time we talk to the Legislature, they say we have people in our community who would love a chance for a secure middle-class lifestyle afforded by an MTA job—and the MTA Police might be one of them," Mr. Lieber told reporters. "We want to work more with our stakeholders and especially our elected officials and get the word out about tests and the other ways to access MTA employment opportunities across the board."

An MTA source said that the agency continued using the polygraph because its Police Officers possess police powers in both New York State and Connecticut, which requires all recruits to pass a polygraph prior to their appointment.

In 2017, the confluence of a manpower shortage and a high polygraph-test failure rate for applicants for Federal Border Patrol Agent jobs prompted a bipartisan push in Congress to exempt applicants from active-duty law-enforcement jobs, military personnel and veterans from the test.

Despite the widespread use of the polygraph by law enforcement, it has a poor reputation with the scientific community and has had some high-profile misses, as in the case of Aldrich Ames, the CIA staffer who was convicted in 1994 of spying for the Russians yet had passed his agency's polygraph.

'Serious Limitations'

In 2002, the National Research Council released a detailed scientific research paper that was supported by the Department of Energy, which wanted to determine the efficacy of administering the polygraph test internally. The researchers included the experts drawn from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

The panel concluded that "polygraph testing as currently used has extremely serious limitations in such screening applications, if the intent is both to identify security risks and protect valued employees. Given its level of accuracy, achieving a high probability of identifying individuals who pose major security risks in a population with a very low proportion of such individuals would require setting the test to be so sensitive that hundreds, or even thousands, of innocent individuals would be implicated for every major security violator correctly identified."

Polygraph tests are not admissible in court, and employers are prohibited by Federal law from using them to screen civilian job applicants. The U.S. military, the NYPD, the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement do not use them, according to the Associated Press.


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