WASHINGTON (AP) — As Yogananda Pittman and Monique Moore climbed the ranks of the U.S. Capitol Police, they encountered no top-level supervisors who looked like them. No black women, from the chief down to the captains, were represented in the upper management of the federal law enforcement agency responsible for protecting lawmakers and congressional buildings.
So it was more than a personal honor when the two became the first black women promoted to captain in the department, which in the past decade has been roiled by allegations from minority officers that they were passed over for promotions and subjected to racial intimidation and harassment.
"I just definitely think it lets them know that it's attainable," Pittman said, referring to younger black officers. "When you see someone who looks like yourself in the rank of captain and what have you, they know they can do it."
The promotions may seem a pedestrian milestone in the year 2012 but they carry symbolic significance for the agency. Accusations of racism within the department have been addressed at congressional hearings, raised in multiple lawsuits and drawn concern from the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members in 2003 said they were "incensed and embarrassed" by the alleged mistreatment
Sworn statements from black officers and a 2001 class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of more than 300 current and former officers paint an unflattering portrait of the department. Black officers complained of losing promotions and favorable assignments to less-qualified white officers and of being humiliated in public and harassed with racial epithets. One officer says he found a hangman's noose on a locker; another reported finding a swastika-like symbol. One black officer nicknamed Ike says a K-9 unit dog was given the same name.
That lawsuit is pending after being revived by a federal appeals court in 2009. Other cases have been filed in the past decade, including just this year.
The Capitol Police has challenged at least some of the claims in court papers, denying that race played a role in the promotional process.
Police departments have generally been slow to promote black women — partly because of promotional exams often alleged to be discriminatory and more likely to produce higher scores among white test-takers — even at a time when black men are increasingly in upper management, said Christine Cole, a criminal justice policy expert at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"I don't believe that we have an equally diverse command staff even though we have large and growing numbers of African-American men who have made their way to the title of chief," she said.
The promotions show the department is making progress, though it remains an "evolving organization," said Deborah Lewis, the department's diversity officer. Nearly one-third of sworn Capitol Police officers are black, and just more than 8 percent are black women, Lewis said. Blacks make up roughly 43 percent of the department's civilian workforce, the agency says.
Of the department's 17 top leaders, two are black men and two are white women. The rest are white men, Lewis said. That pales next to the D.C. police department, which has a female police chief, black assistant chiefs and female black commanders.
"Great strides have been made to develop a climate of openness," Lewis said. A third-party contractor, for instance, now oversees the promotion process.
Joseph Gebhardt, one of the lawyers who brought the class-action case, said in an email that the promotions were "completely out of character for the department" given its history and that the appointments can't fix the "decades-long injustice" black officers have experienced.
Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a plaintiff and current vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, said she was pleased by the promotions but considered them an overdue and incremental accomplishment.
"Although there have been some changes, small changes, the overall atmosphere of the department is not satisfactory," said Blackmon-Malloy, who says she was one of the first two black women promoted to lieutenant and has since retired. "Because if it was, why would we still have to file class-action lawsuits?"
Moore and Pittman say they haven't directly experienced discrimination but don't discount anyone else's claims.
"Even if I did experience that type of behavior from the department, I don't think that would have stopped me from my goals," Moore said.
The captains, who were promoted in January, will together oversee some 500 or so officers in the department, which responds to everything from suspicious packages to thefts from offices to drunken driving.
Pittman, who comes from a family with a military background, joined in 2001 and has served in varied capacities, including in the communications division. Moore had been hired a few years earlier, working initially as a civilian before becoming a sworn officer, where she helped keep congressional committee hearings safe.
The two have had their share of memorable experiences, including being on Capitol Hill during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pittman, a new recruit, was preparing to graduate from training; Moore, meanwhile, helped evacuate First Lady Laura Bush from a Senate office building, where she had been scheduled to testify about education.
"Mainly it just validated my line of work, basically, as far as protecting the community, the professional community and staff," Moore said. "Everything that we train for just kicked in at that moment."
The two envision higher ranks than captain.
"We both have our eyes on when we'll make chief," Pittman said.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP