A federal judge has ordered the Prince George’s County Police Department to stop using its current promotion exam system and hire an independent expert to fix the ways the tests could discriminate against Black and Hispanic police officers.

The ruling Thursday by U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang in Maryland is part of an ongoing lawsuit that officers of color filed in 2018 alleging systemic racism and workplace discrimination. Among several allegations of bias, the lawsuit asserts that the department disproportionately elevates White members of the force.

In his decision, Chuang wrote that there were “notable disparities” in the test passage rate for the exam that promotes members of the force to police officer first class and corporal. He also said that “taken together,” the “bottom-line promotion statistics” for Black and Hispanic officers seeking the rank of sergeant and lieutenant also had lower rates of promotion.

Chuang said in his ruling that the court found “significant disparities” in the department’s promotions process that have an “adverse impact” on Black and Hispanic officers for two of the ranks.

The court did not grant the plaintiffs’ request to halt the April 2021 promotion exam but did order the county to reevaluate its system ahead of an exam set for October.

Joanna Wasik, counsel for the plaintiffs, said the officers consider this a key win after more than two years of battling in court with the county, which has denied the officers’ allegations from the beginning. The ruling comes just months after the judge also granted the plaintiffs’ request to unseal an expert report examining dozens of instances of alleged racism, documents that the county fought to keep from the public view.

“This is a very swift and equally meaningful win that pushes the ball toward change,” Wasik said. “The main message of our clients has been that equity inside the department is really critical to external relationships with the community. You can’t have one without the other, and that is why they have been pushing these internal reforms.”

County Attorney Rhonda Weaver said in a statement that the police department “welcomes the opportunity” to work with the plaintiffs and an independent expert to review the promotion process “and to recommend changes, if necessary.”

Weaver said the county and police department are “committed to ensuring that their professionally-developed promotion system continues to result in the promotion of the best qualified officers — of all races, ethnic groups, and backgrounds.”

The lawsuit leans on county data showing that the demographics of the police department — which is 43 percent White — do not reflect the diversity of the county, which has a population that is 64 percent Black and 20 percent Hispanic.

White officers also are overrepresented demographically in the mid-level leadership ranks of the department, the lawsuit asserts. Fifty-one percent of sergeants, 61 percent of lieutenants and 81 percent of captains are White, according to data from the plaintiffs.

In a motion to the court, the plaintiffs blame the department’s promotion exam system for the disparities. Lawyers for the officers who are suing argued that data collected as part of the lawsuit showed that for years, the pass rates for the tests that determine promotion eligibility and rank were consistently lower among Black and Hispanic officers — which experts said was statistically significant and could not have happened by chance.

As a result, the lawsuit asserts, Black and Hispanic officers as a group were promoted at lower rates than White officers for five years in a row.

The judge wrote that the “adverse impacts” at each level of the promotion process are “interconnected” because test disparities at lower levels ultimately influence who is eligible for the more-prestigious placements.

Officers who took the current iteration of the promotion exams in 2020 and April 2021 will not be required to retake it, and their results will not be thrown out, Chuang wrote in his ruling. But the county must implement a new system by October 2021, when the next exam is scheduled, and work with the plaintiffs to select an independent expert to evaluate the department’s written tests, skills assessments and selection processes.

The recommended changes, Chuang wrote, must “reduce or eliminate the adverse impact and discrimination against Black and Hispanic officers.”

“We have spoken out against discriminatory practices in the hiring and promotion processes since at least 2016, and are hopeful about this first step of many towards improvement,” Lt. Thomas Boone, the president of the United Black Police Officers Association and a plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement. “The end goal will always be to create a fair and just environment for Black and Brown officers so that we can better serve our community.”

Chuang in his opinion cited the details outlined in the expert report he ordered unsealed in February, which alleged racist conduct by officers and said that the department did little to intervene.

The department, Chuang wrote, has taken no “meaningful steps” to address the disparities in the promotion system despite having knowledge of the data about disparities and has shown “deliberate indifference” to the inequities.

The release of the expert report in February prompted the state’s attorney’s office and the office of the public defender to reexamine cases in which officers accused of racism were also involved in ongoing or past criminal investigations. The release of the report also pushed community organizers and family members of those killed or hurt by Prince George’s police to call on County Executive Angela Alsobrooks to “clean house” at the department.

A month later, Alsobrooks announced she was hiring an outside candidate from Texas, police veteran Malik Aziz, to lead the department. He will be responsible for implementing 46 reforms that Alsobrooks accepted from a work group she created last summer amid nationwide racial justice demonstrations.