2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
In late May 1997, 46-year-old Robert Jordan filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city of New London, Connecticut. In the suit, he claimed the police department there had violated his constitutional rights when it determined that he was too intelligent to be a cop. As the Associated Press reported at the time, “Jordan says Assistant City Manager Keith Harrigan, who oversees hiring for the city, told him: ‘We don’t like to hire people that have too high an IQ to be cops in this city.’”
In a subsequent interview with CBS This Morning, Jordan recalled his reaction, saying, “I was just taken aback. Philosophically, I found it offensive to the entire profession of law enforcement.”
The logic the police department employed for their hiring process was clear-cut: Any applicant who scored too high on the intelligence test would grow bored with police work and would leave law enforcement. New London estimated it spent $25,000 training each new police recruit, so they couldn’t afford to lose money training applicants who would quit police work soon after leaving the academy.
The screening process that Jordan underwent was conducted by a company named Law Enforcement Council of Southeastern Connecticut, Inc., and the test he took was a well-known assessment called the Wonderlic Personnel Test and Scholastic Level Exam. The manual that accompanied the test “listed recommended scores for various professions, and cautioned that because overqualified candidates may soon become bored with unchallenging work and quit, simply hiring the highest scoring employee can be self-defeating,” per Jordan’s suit. Jordan scored a 33, but the average police patrol officer scored a 21.
When Jordan heard that the department was interviewing potential new hires and he wasn’t one of them, he asked about his prospects. The assistant city manager informed him that unfortunately “he didn’t fit the profile.” At first, Jordan assumed it was due to his age — at 46, he would have likely been the oldest cadet in the academy. But he filed an administrative complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and that’s when he learned it was his high Wonderlic score that was actually the issue.
“We all know talented, intelligent people that pursue successful careers in law enforcement,” Jordan said at the time. “I just couldn’t accept it. And I found out there is absolutely no evidence. There is no connection between your basic intelligence and job satisfaction or longevity on the job.” Plus, he simply didn’t like how this looked. “What kind of message does that send to children?” he asked. “Study hard, but not too hard?”
And so, he went to court and accused the city and the New London Police Department of violating his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The city, meanwhile, argued that the police were, in fact, able to exclude Jordan based on his smarts.
Amazingly, the city won. A judge agreed that there was a reasonable expectation that cops not be too intelligent. Jordan appealed that decision, and in 2000, he finally got his day in court. But once again, he lost. The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in New York upheld the Connecticut district court’s decision. The ruling was centered on the legal determination that Jordan’s 14th Amendment protections hadn’t been violated since the “same standards were applied to everyone who took the test.”
The most frustrating part for Jordan was that the court determined it didn’t matter if smarter cops were indeed more likely to leave law enforcement. Instead, the legal question came down to whether Jordan’s constitutional rights had been violated. As it was explained in the court’s decision against his appeal: “We conclude that even absent a strong proven statistical correlation between high scores on the Wonderlic test and turnover resulting from lack of job satisfaction, it is enough that the city believed — on the basis of material prepared by the test maker and a letter along similar lines sent by the [Law Enforcement Council of Southeastern Connecticut] — that there was such a connection. Plaintiff presented some evidence that high scorers do not actually experience more job dissatisfaction, but that evidence does not create a factual issue, because it matters not whether the city’s decision was correct so long as it was rational.”
In other words, all that matters is that the city “believed” the test worked. As long as that belief was equally applied, no constitutional rights were violated.
In the face of defeat, Jordan accepted his fate. But when he spoke with the press, he painted himself as the new face of discrimination in 1990s America. “This kinds of puts an official face on discrimination in America against people of a certain class,” he explained. “I maintain you have no more control over your basic intelligence than your eye color or your gender or anything else.”
But there was a silver lining for Jordan: After his testing debacle, he was still able to land a new job at the Department of Corrections, proving that at least he wasn’t too smart to be a prison guard.