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Changing Standards in Police Recruitment

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The national shortage of new police recruits is ongoing, and departments are starting to change how they qualify recruits. A new study from the Department of Justice finds that police departments are changing standards for recruiting. Previous deal-breakers — prior drug use, physical fitness, or low credit scores — are now being set aside as departments try to widen their nets.

Relaxing some rules has some benefits, like creating more diversity in police ranks. Long-standing requirements like rigorous physical fitness tests often excluded under-represented groups, like women. Requirements like stringent credit scores has impacted minority and low-income applicants. Improving representation of minority groups in policing has been identified as a key to rebuilding engagement and trust with their communities.

As marijuana is legalized, drug policies for recruiting are changing, too.  Many departments previously disqualified anyone who admitted using marijuana within three years. Baltimore Commissioner Kevin Davis flagged this as a “the number one disqualifier for police applicants.” For a city that is struggling to rebuild trust after the Freddy Grey killing, the Commissioner argues that police should set aside this standard and make the force more accurately reflect their community.

“I don’t want to hire altar boys to be police officers, necessarily,” 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.”

States set their own standards for recruiting – there are no national requirements. Local flexibility lets jurisdictions hire in a way that better aligns with their community.  In Wichita, Kansas, Police Chief Gordon Ramsay argues that relaxing some standards can 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.”

But not everyone agrees with changing standards for hiring.  “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, now at Glendale Community College. “It is just a recipe for disaster.” Other studies suggest that departments should focus on using existing staff more effectively, or improving retention.

Agree or disagree with changing standards, the trend just reinforces the importance of workforce training. Police departments who are onboarding new recruits need to focus on getting them up to speed and teaching them the skills they will need on the job. If recruits are hired with less college, military experience or experience, managing training becomes even more critical. Training is just as important for existing officers as new technology is continually introduced. Education and skills maintenance is also a key piece in officer retention.


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