Whenever a black applies for a job on Virginia's 1,230-member state police force, recruiters are careful not to list the applicant's race on their reports. Instead they add a small red comma after each black's name.
To many black Virginians and the Justice Department, the red commas are symbolic of a lingering streak of Southern racism that they claim still secretly guides the employment policies of the Virginia State Police Department despite official proclamations to the contrary.
Yesterday, as Justice concluded an exhaustive 11-day trial into charges that the force systematically discriminates against blacks and women, lawyers for the state did not dispute the use of "red commas" or the hostile image that many blacks have of the force. But these, said Assistant State Attorney General Henry M. Massie Jr., do not amount to "one ounce of prejudice."
During the trial before D. Dortch Warriner, a conservative federal judge from Southside Virginia, the department has produced what one Justice lawyer yesterday characterized as evidence of "gross instances of discrimination." White investigators would pry into the sexual habits of black applicants and subject them to unwritten "vague standards" that white applicants seemed to avoid, said William White, a Justice lawyer.
Files of black applicants would contain handwritten notations like "shacked with Caucasian female," "accompanied by a white woman" and "mixed with races," according to earlier testimony. The force's own black recruiter, Donald Irby, one of 38 blacks on the force, testified that his superiors are "really not interested" in hiring blacks and women. In addition to the 38 blacks, there are two women on the force.
As for women, the state acknowledged that it did not begin accepting applications from them until 1973 and it was not until 1976 that it hired its first woman trooper. "I didn't realize it was a secret we didn't hire women," Meredith S. Urick, who was the force's personnel officer for 34 years until his retirement in 1972, testified during the trial.
Warriner, who lives in Emporia, has seemed largely unmoved by the government's case. Yesterday, as he ended the trial without ruling, he hinted once again from the bench that he tends to side with the state.
In April, Warriner blocked Justice from cutting off a $1 million federal grant to the state police for new radios, because of the alleged discrimination, saying he doubted the federal government would win the suit. Yesterday he repeated his belief that the government's plan to stop the aid "doesn't make sense." But he said he will reconsider his view later at the direction of an appeals court that reversed last week his April ruling on procedural grounds.
Warriner said he will rule on the case later this spring after receiving final, written briefs from the lawyers.
His ruling in the police case is seen as an important barometer in the current fight between the state and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare over HEW's charges that virginia has not sufficiently desegregated its public colleges. Gov. John N. Dalton has been under pressure from conservatives to resist the HEW demands for further desegregation and take the case to the courts. If the state wins in the police case, the conservatives would have a stronger argument that the HEW dispute also should go to the courts.
Out of court, Justice Department lawyers said yesterday they were dismayed that Dalton rejected their last minute efforts to settle the police case with a consent decree, rather than going to trial. In a proposed order that would have stopped the trial, the department dropped references to any racial or sex hiring "goals," a key objection of the state. The proposed order would have required the state to have "endeavored" to increase the numbers of blacks and women on the force, language less restrictive than the department has offered police forces under investigation in other states, the lawyers said.
William A. Royall, Dalton's chief aide, said yesterday he could not explain why Dalton had rejected Justice's offer, but said plans for the trial were "well underway" by the time Dalton took office Jan. 14.
Massie, the state's lawyer, said in his final arguments to Warriner, that the state was fighting because the federal government wanted to impose "goals" and "quotas" for blacks and women that "may require a lowering of standards" in the force. In the past, the police department has maintained it would rather drop below its authorized personnel levels than to hire people who did not meet its standards.
"The evidence is clear that the Virginia State Police has faced the same problems facing the FBI and other law enforcement agencies," Massie told Warriner, citing the FBI's reluctance to hire female agents. The "stigma" the Virginia force suffers in black communities is also similar to the troubles facing other law enforcement agencies, Massie said.
While White noted that the state police did not have any funds earmarked for recruiting or advertising job openings, Massie seemed to say that the burden for the lack of black troopers lay outside the police force. "Qualified applicants cannot be conscripted, they must apply," he said.
The Justice Department lawyers had argued earlier that finding application forms was difficult for some blacks. One black who was rejected for the force testified that Harold W. Burgess, the former superintendent of the force, had offered to recommend him for a job on any local police force in the state.