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Police hiring standards: Raise them or lower them?

Chicago and other cities are contemplating lowering police hiring standards in answer to the Obama administration’s request


Broward County, Fla., Sherriff’s Department police Explorers Kyle Wuensch, right, and Jeffery Aylor arrest a mock drug dealer played by DEA Special Agent Greg Peckingpugh as they participate in a search and arrest scenario at the Law Enforcement Explorers Conference Thursday July 22, 2010 in Atlanta. The program’s best gathered in Atlanta for the conference, which is partly a recruitment tool the help ready the next generation of law enforcement officers.

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Becoming a police officer is a difficult endeavor, and the hiring process is intentionally rigorous. Candidates need to fall within age minimums and maximums, have a good credit history, meet physical fitness requirements, pass criminal background checks, and undergo a psychiatric exam, among other things.

There are reasons for this. A person who has been convicted of a crime may one day reoffend. Someone with a bad credit history or other financial problems may be susceptible to bribery and corruption. A person who cannot meet the physical standards may jeopardize themselves or another when strength and conditioning are the difference between life and death. A person who fails the psychiatric test ... well, that could go grimly wrong in so many ways.

A high school education is required, and a two- or four-year college degree is required at an increasing number of agencies. A college degree has also become the baseline benchmark for ascending in the ranks toward command-level positions.

England and Wales just this week announced that all incoming officers in either country will have to have a degree beginning in 2020. According to the BBC, prospective officers will have to complete a three-year “degree-apprenticeship,” a postgraduate conversion course, or a degree.

Given the increase in the use of technology and the evolution of the profession of policing in general, this increased standard makes good sense.

Meanwhile in America, the talk is all about lowering standards — not raising them.

Lowering standards is not the way to build a diverse agency

Just this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel “opened the door to allowing candidates with minor drug and criminal offenses to become Chicago Police officers to attract minorities,” according to the Chicago Sun Times.

Emanuel — alongside three powerful Chicago politicians — are raising the issue of lowering standards in response to recommendations made in the Obama administration’s Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement report, released by the U.S. Department of Justice Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October of this year.

“The report suggests that police departments across the nation should disregard minor criminal offenses of candidates from ‘underrepresented communities,’ revise the controversial psychological exam and lower the bar for written and physical exams,” said the Sun Times.

I cannot recall any instance in which the lowering police hiring standards led to a positive result — this idea always ends badly. This experiment has been tried in places like Los Angeles and elsewhere over the years, and in each case has resulted in corrupt cops doing nothing but giving law enforcement a bad reputation.

If police department leaders truly want to assemble a force that’s reflective of the community they serve, the best approach is to diligently cultivate good candidates from their jurisdiction’s youth. Working with kids — particularly in public schools — should be at the very forefront of an agency’s effort to recruit and retain a force that is reflective of the city’s population.

Public schools are an almost perfect reflection of a community’s population, and at a young enough age, even the most at-risk youth do not have criminal records, have not taken drugs and have not yet been given the opportunity to screw up their credit report.

Opportunities to work with youth in the community are abundant. Agencies can develop a Police Activities League that features things like baseball, football, judo, chess and other pastimes that encourage discipline and good sportsmanship.

Some agencies have developed summer job programs that not only keep kids off the streets and away from trouble, but also help kids earn money, increase self-esteem, and see cops as partners in their growth and wellbeing.

The holy grail of developing officers from the time they are kids is a Police Explorer or Cadet program. Explorers and Cadets learn a lot about the job while also serving as volunteers helping the agency execute a variety community-relations strategies. Many Explorers and Cadets end up eventually working full time at their agency.

The more often kids have a positive exposure to law enforcement, the more likely they will be to stay out of trouble. They will then become excellent candidates for the job.

Another benefit to police working with kids is that they become pro-police ambassadors with their families and friends in the community.

One DOJ proposal worth considering

It merits mention that the DOJ report does have one intriguing idea that some agencies might consider: allowing work-authorized non-U.S. citizens — foreign nationals who are here legally and meet or exceed all the other standards — to be considered as viable candidates.

Doing so can be helpful “in jurisdictions with large immigrant populations, can enable agencies to more closely represent the diversity of their community,” the report said.

This could potentially expand the pool of qualified candidates from which the recruiting agency may choose — it has been a winning strategy for the United States military since the Revolutionary War.

The standards used by the military may make sense for police. For example, a non-citizen potential enlistee must possess an Alien Registration Receipt Card (stamped I-94 or I-551 Green card/INS Form 1-551) as well as established proof that the United States is their home. They must then go complete the immigration process of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before proceeding to enlistment. Non-citizens military service members are limited to one service term, but if they become U.S. citizens they are allowed to reenlist. Of course, undocumented immigrants are not allowed to enlist.

Requiring police recruits to endure the USCIS process and become citizens before attending the academy is not lowering a standard — in fact, with all the extra hoops and hurdles such a candidate must pass through and over, it’s more like raising the standard for those individuals.

We should be raising standards, not lowering them

Meanwhile in Chicago, the PD hiring standards have not yet been lowered — it is still just a proposal — but the fact that it’s even being seriously discussed is troubling.

Lowering your standards is a dangerously bad idea for safety precautions in work environments like coal mining. It’s really a misguided idea for finding a husband, a wife, or life partner. It’s an absolutely terrible idea when it comes to police hiring standards.

The purpose of high hiring standards is to ensure that only the most ethical, capable, and honorable candidates make it onto the force. At a time when scrutiny of police officers is rising and demands that every single officer perform the job with professionalism that is practically perfection, bringing people onto the force with a questionable past or an inability to simply do the job at a high level is just wrongheaded.

Standards help prevent the coal mine from collapsing, marriages ending in divorce and police departments hiring people who have no business carrying a badge and a gun.

As was recently noted in the United Kingdom this week, we are presently in an era in which rapid changes in law enforcement requires that we raise our standards — not lower them.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.