2002, the year in review:
Trying harder to fill depleted ranks
A scarcity of suitable candidates — even in 2002’s poor economy — led a number of police departments around the country this year to do some rethinking with regard to the qualifications they were willing to accept in their applicants.
Leading the retreat were the Virginia State Police, and the Waco, Texas, Police Department, each of which threw out old policies regarding recruits’ prior drug use.
In Waco, under a new standard applied in August, applicants may not have smoked marijuana in the previous two years. The old policy called for the rejection of applicants who had smoked marijuana more than 50 times.
Anyone who has tried drugs such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine — even once — continues to be automatically eliminated.
“I don’t know if it actually would make a difference in the numbers or not, but you’re kind of getting into the age of applicants that the majority seem to have used marijuana,” said Sgt. Sherri Swinson. “What we’re doing is looking at the overall person.”
The Virginia State Police in February implemented new guidelines that allow those who have tried heroin, cocaine or any other Schedule I or Schedule II drug more than five years before applying to still be considered. Use of those drugs more than once, however, means automatic disqualification, as does any use of LSD or PCP. Applicants who have smoked pot more than once can also be considered, but not if they have used the drug within the previous 12 months. And a DUI conviction, as long as it occurred more than five years before applying, is no longer a deal breaker
Lt. Col. Donald R. Martin, the state police superintendent, said the guidelines are fairer because they take into account an applicant’s “entire employment and life history.” Said Martin: “Our present policy would not allow us to even consider that person at all, even if they’ve lived an exemplary life.”
Drug-history standards weren’t the only applicant qualifications to fall victim to difficulties in recruitment. In Bangor, Maine, police officials tossed out a decade-old requirement that applicants have either a two-year criminal justice degree, or two years of full-time law enforcement experience. Now, prospective officers need only be 21, have a valid driver’s license, and a high school or equivalency diploma.
The agency was only able to come up with no more than three qualified candidates out of a pool of 20 to fill five vacancies. Nearly one-third of applicants fail the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s agility test, and another one-third to one-half are eliminated during the background check.
“We want to expand the number of applicants we get because I’m convinced there are people out there in the community who would do a real good job as a police officer who might not necessarily have the degree,” said Chief Don Winslow.
Still, it was not all one mighty step backward for higher education and policing, as other departments took the opposite tack, including New York City’s, which sent recruiters to the nation’s Ivy League schools in search of candidates. In Hamden, Maine, Police Chief Joe Rogers said he believed agencies should be raising their standards, even as he struggled to fill two vacancies within in his own ranks.
According to a preliminary study released by the IACP in October, while police officers with just a high school diploma made up just over half of all sworn law enforcement personnel in Florida between 1997 and 2002, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of significant disciplinary actions taken by the state.
Of the 727 disciplinary actions issued by the state’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, those with no degree above a high school diploma accounted for 74.8 percent. Those with bachelor’s degree accounted for 11.9 percent of the total, and those with two-year degrees, 12.2 percent. Further research on the subject is expected.
In Portland, Maine, Police Chief Michael Chitwood was forced to scale back the agency’s community policing program because of a shortage of front-line officers. Four out of the program’s 10 officers were reassigned. The number of applicants who take the agency’s entrance exam has fallen by roughly half over the past five years, he noted, and of those who do take it, nearly half fail the physical fitness component.
“That’s amazing to me, when you have 24- and 25-year-olds who can’t run, can’t do push-ups,” said Chitwood. “This is not a triathlete-type of physical.”