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 is 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.
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,” Police Commissioner Kevin 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.”
In Arizona, the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board adopted new guidelines to allow for prior use of Adderall, often used to treat attention deficit disorder or as a study aid, if the use was not extensive.
Education requirements were changed in Louisville, Kentucky, where police recently set aside a requirement for at least 60 college credit hours after seeing a steady decline in applications. In the past fiscal year, applications for the force dropped to 1,081 from 1,867 the year before, said Sgt. Daniel Elliott, the agency’s commander of recruitment and selection.
In just a month since it was scrapped, the agency received so many applications — 667 — that it had to stop accepting them to ensure it had time to properly review them, Elliot said.
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.”