Smok­ing pot, no col­lege may not bar you from po­lice work

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Dave Collins and Lisa Marie Pane

HART­FORD, CONN. >> Po­lice de­part­ments are re­lax­ing age-old stan­dards for ac­cept­ing re­cruits, from low­er­ing ed­u­ca­tional re­quire­ments to for­giv­ing some prior drug use, to try to at­tract more peo­ple to their ranks.

The changes are de­signed to deal with de­creased in­ter­est in a job that of­fers low pay, rig­or­ous phys­i­cal de­mands and the pos­si­bil­ity of get­ting killed on duty all while un­der in­tense public scru­tiny. There’s also the ques­tion of how to en­cour­age more mi­nori­ties to be­come po­lice of­fi­cers.

“We have a national cri­sis,” said Eugene O’Don­nell, a former New York City po­lice of­fi­cer and now a lec­turer at John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice in New York. “For the first time in my life, I would say I could never rec­om­mend the job. Who’s go­ing to put on a cam­era, go into ur­ban Amer­ica where peo­ple are go­ing to cri­tique ev­ery move you make? You’re go­ing to be de­mo­nized.”

There’s no national stan­dard for be­com­ing an of­fi­cer; it’s left up to each state to set re­quire­ments. In gen­eral, prior drug use or past brushes with the law, how­ever mi­nor, have been enough to bar some­one from be­com­ing an of­fi­cer. On top of that are phys­i­cal fit­ness stan­dards that have long been academy grad­u­a­tion re­quire­ments. And even after grad­u­a­tion, re­cruits of­ten face a back­ground check that might in­clude a credit-his­tory re­view.

The phys­i­cal re­quire­ments have im­peded the hir­ing of women, while credit his­to­ries and education stan­dards have stood in the way of some mi­nori­ties. Amid the push to di­ver­sify, many po­lice de­part­ments ques­tion whether those long-held, mil­i­tarystyle stan­dards are the best ways to at­tract of­fi­cers able to re­late to com­mu­ni­ties and defuse ten­sions.

De­part­ments that are chang­ing test­ing and other re­quire­ments that have been shown to dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­qual­ify mi­nor­ity can­di­dates were praised in a re­port re­leased last month by the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion.

Peo­ple from mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties are more likely to be dis­qual­i­fied by crim­i­nal back­ground and credit checks, be­cause mem­bers of those com­mu­ni­ties are more likely to have con­tact with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and have lower credit scores, the re­port says. Mi­nori­ties also may have more trou­ble on writ­ten tests that don’t ac­cu­rately screen peo­ple for the skills needed for po­lice jobs, it says.

A 2013 sur­vey by the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice showed that about 12 per­cent of the na­tion’s of­fi­cers were black and 12 per­cent were His­panic. The per­cent­ages were higher than three decades ear­lier, but mi­nori­ties con­tinue to be un­der­rep­re­sented in many com­mu­ni­ties, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment. About 13 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion is black and about 18 per­cent is His­panic, ac­cord­ing to the cen­sus.

The new po­lice di­ver­sity re­port called di­ver­sity the linch­pin to build­ing trust be­tween law en­force­ment and com­mu­ni­ties.

“Hir­ing is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic in this en­vi­ron­ment we live in,” said Chuck Wexler, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Po­lice Ex­ec­u­tive Re­search Fo­rum. “I’ve been in a room with a large group of po­lice ... I’ve asked how many of you would like your son or daugh­ter to be a po­lice of­fi­cer, and no one raises their hand.”

Po­lice of­fi­cials say they have in­creased ef­forts to hire of­fi­cers of color, in­clud­ing hold­ing re­cruit­ing events in cities, tar­get­ing mi­nor­ity groups on so­cial me­dia, and vis­it­ing mil­i­tary bases and col­leges.

The Con­necti­cut State Po­lice is among the agen­cies wrestling with di­ver­sity.

Blacks and His­pan­ics com­prise about a third of trooper ap­pli­cants and about a quar­ter of the state’s pop­u­la­tion, but only 10 per­cent of the force — the base set three decades ago after the agency was sued. Since 2004, nearly 4,500 blacks and 4,200 His­pan­ics have ap­plied to be Con­necti­cut troop­ers, but only 28 African-Amer­i­cans and 38 His­pan­ics have grad­u­ated from the academy, ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press. Dur­ing that same pe­riod, 15,000 whites ap­plied and 527 grad­u­ated from the academy.

State po­lice of­fi­cials say they have in­creased ef­forts to re­cruit mi­nori­ties, but many don’t make it through the hir­ing and test­ing process — in­clud­ing a back­ground check, lie de­tec­tor and phys­i­cal agility tests, and a writ­ten exam de­signed to as­sess log­i­cal rea­son­ing, read­ing abil­ity, com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and other per­sonal traits. Of­fi­cials also cited stiff com­pe­ti­tion; many can­di­dates end up tak­ing jobs at other de­part­ments.

“They al­ways state that they’re go­ing to make an hon­est ef­fort in or­der to im­prove the num­bers, but I don’t see it hap­pen­ing,” said Fred Abrams, a black re­tired Con­necti­cut trooper who led the 1982 fed­eral law­suit that re­sulted in the depart­ment agree­ing to hire more mi­nori­ties. “No one holds them ac­count­able.”

While many de­part­ments won’t hire some­one who ad­mits to hav­ing used mar­i­juana within the pre­vi­ous three years, in Baltimore, where ri­ots took place after a black man died after be­ing trans­ported in a po­lice van, the com­mis­sioner is seek­ing to change the rules — call­ing it “the No. 1 dis­qual­i­fier for po­lice ap­pli­cants.”

“I don’t want to hire al­tar boys to be po­lice of­fi­cers, nec­es­sar­ily,” Davis told The Baltimore Sun. “I want peo­ple of good char­ac­ter, of good moral char­ac­ter, but I want peo­ple who have lived a life just like ev­ery­body else — a life not un­like the lives of the peo­ple who they are go­ing to be in­ter­act­ing with ev­ery day.”

In Wi­chita, Kansas, Po­lice Chief Gor­don Ram­say is work­ing to re­lax some stan­dards, say­ing it will help of­fi­cers re­late bet­ter to peo­ple they en­counter.

“Peo­ple who have strug­gled in life ... can re­late bet­ter to the peo­ple we deal with,” Ram­say said. “My ex­pe­ri­ence is they dis­play more em­pa­thy.”

Still, although the changes may en­cour­age more peo­ple to sign up, some law en­force­ment ex­perts worry it will lead to un­trust­wor­thy hires and cause more prob­lems down the road.

“Low­er­ing your stan­dards is an ab­so­lute mis­take. It’s an ab­so­lute con­nec­tion to mis­con­duct, cor­rup­tion and a de­grad­ing of the agency,” said Jeff Hynes, a former Phoenix of­fi­cer who is chair­man for public safety sci­ences at Glen­dale Com­mu­nity Col­lege. “It is just a recipe for dis­as­ter.”

DAVE COLLINS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Con­necti­cut State Po­lice re­cruits prac­tice with their new .45-cal­iber Sig Sauer pis­tols dur­ing a “dry fire” ex­er­cise at the state po­lice fir­ing range in Sims­bury, Conn.

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