In one of New York City’s most powerful police divisions, there was an obscure unit filled almost exclusively by black detectives.
The “rap unit,” as it was referred to internally, had a peripheral role in a division otherwise focused on recruiting Muslim informants and building terrorism cases. Detectives went undercover at hip-hop concerts, protected artists from scammers and stickup men and warned venues of potential feuds.
Inside the Intelligence Division, which was largely led by white commanders, the “rap unit” was known to stall careers: Black detectives there did not get promoted for years, no matter how sterling their recommendations, according to a complaint filed by three black detectiveswith a federal labor agency.
For years, the complaint says, there was only one promotion in the unit, which was not focused on the long-term investigations that often help detectives get recognized — and it was given to a white detective, one of a very few assigned there.
The frustration was not uncommon among scores of detectives in the Intelligence Division, and hundreds of others in the nation’s largest police force. In interviews, current and retired detectives said a patronage system of promotions had bumped detectives based more on connections to powerful bosses, and less on their work, fueling bitterness and accusations of nepotism.
The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found last year that the promotions process systematically stymied black detectives in the Intelligence Division, leaving them with less pay, power and prestige than their similarly qualified white counterparts. The commission, which enforces discrimination laws, ruled that a “wholly subjective and secret process” caused black detectives to receive “lesser and later opportunities for promotion consistent with their qualifications.”
But those findings, which have not previously been made public, failed to invigorate efforts within the department to fix a promotions process some police officials have conceded in sworn testimony is opaque and frustrating.
The Justice Department, which has retreated from police oversight under President Trump, said in June that it would not sue the New York Police Department over the findings. That averted a high-profile confrontation with the nation’s largest police force for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has said federal interventions in local policing are bad for morale.
The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan said in a statement that the decision was made “on the merits” by federal prosecutors in New York. Civil rights lawyers said it put added pressure on New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, to push to make detective promotions fairer. The detectives plan to sue the department in the coming days.
Roland Stephens, 55, who retired this summer after 26 years in the Police Department and a dozen years in the rap unit, said he was ashamed when white colleagues who had leapt ahead of him in promotions asked what grade he had achieved.
“You’re almost embarrassed to talk about it,” he said. “It looks like you’re doing something wrong, it looks like you’re a bad guy, or you’re a bad seed.” But, he added, “in reality, you’re being held back by no fault of your own.”
The commission, after analyzing roughly 75 detectives promoted from third grade to second grade in the Intelligence Division over a seven-year period, found that black detectives on average served at the lower rung for two years longer than white detectives. It said the gap was “considerably broader” than the Police Department acknowledged and could not be explained by individual circumstances.
The police department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, Lawrence Byrne, disputed that analysis. “The E.E.O.C. is a largely incompetent agency,” he said. “The E.E.O.C. had a political agenda here and they ignored the objective evidence.”
He said it was a “myth” that detectives got promoted because of who they knew. And contrary to claims that detectives are left confused by the standards for promotion, he said the expectations are clear: “If they say they don’t know that, then they really don’t belong in the N.Y.P.D.”
Some black detectives said the promotion system, by leaving their careers in the hands of a largely white class of police executives, discouraged them from openly resisting slurs and tactics that corrode the relationship between the police and community: colleagues comparing black New Yorkers to “mutts” or “skid marks” or being quick to detain black people unconnected to a crime.
Third-grade detectives make roughly $11,000 less annually than second-grade detectives, and $27,000 less than first-grade detectives. After retirement, those differences can swell to hundreds of thousands of dollars more in lifetime police pensions for first-grade detectives.
In testimony last year in an unrelated case, Lt. Bernard Whalen, who works in the Police Department’s Office of Labor Relations, said the police commissioner at the time, William J. Bratton, knew the detective promotions process should be more transparent.
“He realizes that people are frustrated about the promotion process to detective second-grade in particular, and first-grade,” Lt. Whalen said. “They’re trying to come up with a way to let people know what’s expected of them.”
For now, though, detectives say the system remains inscrutable. Sergeants make a list of who they want promoted, and it works its way up a ladder of supervisors, with names being knocked off at each rung, until a chief and then a deputy commissioner cull the list a final time and send it to the police commissioner’s office. Unlike the promotional paths to becoming a sergeant, lieutenant or captain — all of which rely heavily on exams — detectives move up at bosses’ discretion, and in most units are never told exactly the rationale. The list, called the “grid,” is confidential.
Commissioner Byrne said the system worked because skills like conducting interviews and running down leads cannot be measured by an exam. Detectives, though, say the secrecy turns them against each other and makes some investigators overly aggressive with cases. They say some are promoted for good cases and others because they are sergeants’ drivers or chiefs’ drinking buddies.
A detective assigned to the “rap unit” at its founding, William Courtney, who had earlier built a major investigation of the record label Murder Inc., said they tried to predict and deter violence at events like celebrity basketball games and rappers’ appearances at shoe stores. He said that put it on the sidelines of a division focused on terrorism.
“It was often babysitting rappers,” he said. “As the Intelligence Division, I didn’t think that was our role.”
Mr. Courtney, who is white, said some detectives seemed eager to move into the unit. But he said filling it with black detectives in particular did not necessarily serve the unit’s work.
Mr. Stephens said the unit, officially called the Enterprise Operations Unit, had another nickname: “E-O-U-ain’t-getting-promoted.” On a perfect 5 evaluation in 2010, Mr. Stephens’s supervisor recommended a promotion and said he was the rap unit’s senior investigator. But detectives can receive strong recommendations for years, as the three black detectives in the complaint did, and not get bumped up in grade. Mr. Stephens said that supervisor told him he had not been promoted because Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, the top uniformed member of the Intelligence Division, did not like him.
Another detective who complained, Jon McCollum, said a supervisor once told him he would have climbed faster if he were white.
Under Chief Galati, who joined the Intelligence Division in 2006 and has since been promoted to three-star chief, the division became known for surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods.
The complaint describes Chief Galati as making decisions based on personal loyalty. Detectives there spoke about how being an “F.O.G.,” or a friend of Galati, was the surest path to a good career.
After filing the complaint in December 2011 with two colleagues, Mr. Stephens was promoted two years later to second grade. The equal employment commission said that in 2013, black detectives who were promoted had waited an average of 12 years at a lower grade, while white detectives who were promoted had waited six.
Commissioner Byrne declined to discuss the specific allegations or provide a racial breakdown of each grade of detective. He said two of the detectives who filed the complaint had by that point already been placed on the “grid” for eventual promotion.
The department said that in Intelligence, 15.9 percent of police officers and 16.3 percent of detectives are black, slightly more than the 15.6 percent of police officers and 15.8 percent of detectives who are black in the whole department.
The proportion of black police officers on the force has dropped since 2010, while the share of black detectives and sergeants has stayed roughly level and the share of black lieutenants and captains has grown.
But within the Intelligence Division, the complaint says, there were no black officials above the rank of sergeant in 2011, leaving promotional decisions for detectives largely to white bosses. When Mr. Stephens retired in July, he said there were two black lieutenants and one Hispanic deputy inspector, one Hispanic captain and one Hispanic lieutenant.
Commissioner Byrne said the Intelligence Division, now called the Intelligence Bureau, also had many Middle Eastern and South Asian officers, and the department as a whole was appointing more minority officials to executive roles. He said Chief Galati was “one of the most user-friendly chiefs in the department” and gave no one special treatment.
The deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, John J. Miller, said the Enterprise Operations Unit was a “small, elite unit” that drew applicants in droves and selected detectives for their entertainment industry expertise.
A lawyer for the detectives, Elizabeth Saylor, who brought the case as part of a team of lawyers at the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady and the New York Civil Liberties Union, said “an extreme culture of retaliation” within the department had kept other black detectives who experienced discrimination from coming forward.
Black detectives also described struggling to learn of openings in specialized units in the first place because they had fewer relatives or friends in positions of power.
In narcotics units, a retired black detective, Darryl Haynes, said, black officers got put in risky undercover jobs but were often slow to win coveted investigative assignments.
“You have to do twice as much work as your white counterparts,” he said. “Or if you’re not out drinking and partying with the bosses, you know, it was just difficult.”
The complaint says one of the detectives, Theodore Coleman, watched white colleagues he had trained get promoted before him. Mr. Coleman died last year of pancreatic cancer his family believes is related to work at ground zero. His widow, Sara Francisco-Coleman, said not having the pension of a higher-ranked detective made it harder to buy medical supplies for him. She said her husband used to tell her that officers who had vowels at the end of their names, as Italian-American detectives did, were more likely to get promotions.
She said Mr. Coleman joined the police in part to improve how officers treated black children, but grew exasperated by the obstacles facing black detectives. “This is how I felt every day in Intel,” she recalled him telling her. “You jump one hurdle, you run. You jump another hurdle, you run. Then they tell you, keep going, you’re going to get there, you’re going to get there. And they keep putting hurdles in front of you to the point where you’re like, ‘I’m never going to get to the damn finish line because I keep having hurdles put in front of me.’”
The detectives brought those concerns to a detectives’ union delegate before filing a complaint. The delegate relayed the concerns to Chief Galati and, in June 2011, the complaint says, told Mr. McCollum that Chief Galati had promised to “give them one guy.” The detectives took that to mean he would promote one black detective.
Later that summer, Mr. Coleman, at that point months away from retirement, was promoted to second grade.
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the rank of Thomas Galati, the top uniformed member of the New York City Police Department’s Intelligence Division. It is chief, not assistant chief.