Comparing student and police chief executive views on drug use disqualifiers for hiring
Overall, police leaders and students have different views about how drugs should be treated for hiring officers
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Preparing for Election Day | Drug use & hiring | Weed legalization impact, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
By A Johannes Bottema & Cody Telep
Nationally, law enforcement agencies in the US are facing significant challenges in hiring officers. Recently, researchers worked with the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST) to survey police chief executives and college students taking criminology classes to learn about their perspectives on police hiring.
One key area of interest was views on hiring disqualifiers, with particular attention on how different types of pre-employment drug use by applicants should be treated. The purpose of this was to determine any overlap in views and potential for policy changes that may help address issues with current hiring challenges. This article provides an overview of the research findings, which were published in the Journal of Drug Issues.
Researchers conducted surveys of over 1,100 undergraduate students attending criminology classes at Arizona State University. These were conducted both in-person and online and covered a broad and diverse cross-section of students. Just over 80% of the students surveyed expressed an interest in a law enforcement career at the federal, state, or local level. Due to this, student views can be viewed as those of potential applicants.
With assistance from the AZPOST, the researchers also sent out surveys to the chief executives of all 159 law enforcement agencies in Arizona. Responses were received from 98 agencies of varying sizes from across the state.
Opinions on different drugs examined
For the study, three key types of drug use were examined in regard to pre-employment drug use as a hiring disqualifier:
“Hard” drug use
“Hard” drug use refers to pre-employment drug use for drugs other than marijuana. This was an area in which chiefs and students were largely in agreement. The majority of both of these groups believed that the current standards for drug use were about right. There was, however, a sizable minority of chiefs (almost a third) who believed general drug standards were too harsh.
Marijuana usage is treated differently in terms of hiring disqualifiers.  It is treated more leniently, with more uses allowed before resulting in disqualification. When surveyed, the majority of both groups supported the idea that marijuana should be treated more leniently than other drugs.
In terms of the existing marijuana disqualification standards, the majority of chiefs believed that marijuana experimentation laws were too harsh while a slight majority of students thought these were about right. However, there was still a sizable group of students who thought current marijuana disqualifiers were too harsh. Few respondents in both groups thought current marijuana standards were too lenient.
Further, students were supportive of exceptions for marijuana use, such as the use of marijuana in a state in which it is legal or the use of medical marijuana. Chiefs, on the other hand, believed that all marijuana use should be treated consistently under one more lenient marijuana experimentation standard.
Prescription drug use as a hiring disqualifier is another area of interest. Such use is currently typically treated the same as drugs other than marijuana. Over three-quarters of surveyed chief executives believed that pre-employment prescription drug use should be handled as a separate category. The study asked both groups about specific prescription drugs such as pain killers, stimulants, steroids and cold/flu medicine.
The majority of chiefs believed that every prescription drug type, except steroids, should be treated more leniently than other drugs. Interestingly, student views reflected less tolerance than the chiefs. For every prescription drug type, except cold/flu medicine, the majority of students believed prescription drugs should be treated the same as other drugs, if not even harsher and resulting in disqualification. This even included stimulants such as Adderall, which are known to be used by some on college campuses for studying and athletics.
Overall, police chief executives and students have different views about how drugs should be treated for hiring officers.
Typically, students tend to believe that pre-employment drug use should be treated more harshly than chiefs do. That being said, students were also more interested in exceptions for marijuana use under specific circumstances. Given these differences, policy implications from these findings are not clear cut, though there is evidence that both groups would be open to changes to current pre-employment drug disqualifiers.
Informed by the survey results and numerous meetings conducted with various law enforcement stakeholders and hiring personnel, AZPOST personnel proposed a variety of changes to the current drug standards. A number of these have been approved by the AZPOST board but are still awaiting final state approval. These changes were made to increase the applicant pool for sworn positions in Arizona while also maintaining the high standards required for such positions. Once these changes are active, more research will be needed to ensure this mission is being accomplished.
About the authors
A Johannes Bottema is a Ph.D. Candidate in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. His research focuses on collaborating with law enforcement at various levels to explore what is effective in policing and how this may benefit police agencies and the communities that they serve. His key focus is on evaluating evidence-based policing and particularly intelligence-led policing.
Cody Telep is an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. His Ph.D. is in Criminology, Law, and Society from George Mason University, where he worked in the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. His research interests include the impact of police practices on crime and disorder, assessing the relationship between police activities and perceptions of legitimacy, understanding how to advance the use of evidence-based policies and practices in policing and criminal justice, and using experimental methodologies in evaluation research.