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, military-style standards are the best ways to attract officers able to relate to communities and defuse tensions.
VPD relaxes stance on pot, firm on other standards
Even as the pool of applicants for law enforcement jobs seems to be drying up nationwide, the Vancouver Police Department has done little to alter its minimum entry requirements.
However, with the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012, the department has reduced its disqualifying window for marijuana use from three years to one prior to the date of application, Sgt. Dave Henderson said.
“Everything else has pretty much stayed the same,” said Henderson, who works in recruiting for the department.
A history of harder drug use is still looked at more dubiously, he said.
As is common with many departments, new Vancouver officers must have earned a high school diploma, he said. Still, Vancouver’s new hires tend to arrive with two-year degrees or some college.
“The biggest thing we lose people on is polygraph dishonesty and background checks,” he said. “You can make mistakes. We’re not looking for saints.”
“But you can’t be dishonest in any part of the process,” he said, adding that goes for prospective sworn officers and other department staff.
The city has allotted several more officer spots, and won a federal grant to hire more cops, in the past year, so Henderson has openings for 17 people to fill.
The department’s pay and benefit packages for new hires are already fairly competitive, he said, so it’s trying to find ways to make its hiring process more efficient and better plan around turnover.
The city’s website is advertising openings for entry-level police officers with a starting salary range of about $61,000 to $82,000 per year.
— Andy Matarrese
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.
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.