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New Jersey police exam question prompts furor

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

Protests in New Jersey over the perceived anti-Irish wording of a question on an exam for prospective police officers in the state are largely unfounded, the Echo has discovered.

At the same time, organizations such as the American Irish Political Education Committee, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh are still concerned that St. Patrick’s Day has been, yet again, unfairly linked with drunken behavior.

The question, in the recent New Jersey Department of Personnel Law Enforcement Officer Examination, depicts a fictional situation in which a police officer questions a woman motorist in the early hours of March 18.

The motorist is on her way home from a St. Patrick’s Day party but is confused and tells the officer that she was at a St. Valentine’s Day party. This, and several other factors, leads the officer to the conclusion that the woman is driving while intoxicated.

The question does not refer to the woman as being specifically Irish in her ethnic background.

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However, it became a widespread perception in recent weeks that the wording of the question included the phrase, "another drunken Irish person on St. Patrick’s Day."

A reader’s letter published the Irish Edition newspaper in Philadelphia listed the address of the Commissioner of the Department of Personnel. The letter stated that the exam included the inflammatory phrase.

Another letter, published in the Asbury Park Press, was duly reprinted — with acknowledgement to the South Jersey daily — in the current American Irish Political Education Committee newsletter.

It, too, stated that the exam question had specifically described the arrest of a drunken Irish person.

As a result of the letters, and quite likely word of angry mouth, the Department of Personnel, which is based in Trenton, has been bombarded with complaints from irate Irish Americans.

The problem is, the infuriating phrase was not included in the exam question, the exact wording of which has been seen by the Echo.

"The questions in the exam, this one included, were drawn up by an outside company and it was a sealed exam. But the accusation that the question stereotyped the Irish is unfounded," said Bill O’Brien, a spokesman for the department.

O’Brien said he had no idea how it became so widely believed that the contentious wording had been included in the exam question.

"But I understand the concern. We would be concerned if any ethnic group was portrayed unfavorably," O’Brien told the Echo.

"If there was anything disparaging toward Irish people, I would be the first to jump up and down, O’Brien said.

But while O’Brien is on firm ground with regard to the absence of disparaging words aimed at Irish people, the use of St. Patrick’s Day as a backdrop to the question has prompted separate expressions of annoyance.

In its newsletter, the PEC asked subscribers to write to Commissioner Janice Mintz, director of personnel for the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.

The PEC "Action Request," which readers can cut out from the newsletter and mail to Commissioner Mintz, expressed concern over the use of St. Patrick’s Day as a setting for the question.

"I urge you to reword the question to exclude the reference to St. Patrick’s Day. The question demeans all Irish persons, all Americans of Irish descent, all Irish-American law-enforcement personnel, and the patron saint of Ireland," the Action Request states.

And in a reference to a major recent public controversy in New Jersey involving state police and African Americans, the requests concludes: "Certainly, the racial profiling implicit in this question has no place on a civil service exam. I will look forward to hearing about what action you will take action on this matter."

Commissioner Mintz, whose family name is Mitchell, was quick to promise action.

In a letter to James MacFarland, state president of the New Jersey AOH, Mintz indicated that as soon as she had been notified of the concern over the question, she immediately issued a direction that the question referring to St. Patrick’s Day be removed from "all future uses of this test."

Mintz said that the department’s staff was sensitive to any potential ethnic slur and carefully reviewed testing materials to ensure that situations like this one, "that may even be perceived as being uncaring," are not used.

"Being of Irish ancestry, I certainly would feel pained if I thought I had allowed the Irish to be ridiculed under my watch," Mintz wrote MacFarland. "I apologize to you and any who may have been offended by this situation. I can assure you that it was not intentional and my staff will even be more vigilant in the future."

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