How to Find the Cops America Needs

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Texas police at the 'fallen heroes' memorial in Wash DC Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Officer-involved shootings continue to be a major problem for police departments across the country. According to the Fatal Force database compiled by the Washington Post, 3,743 people have been shot and killed by police since 2015, with 746 of those deaths occurring in 2018 alone.

While a number of these incidents may be the result of officers responding to legitimate threats to their safety, and the safety of others, many still point to a pattern of violent and irresponsible reactions to situations that should have ended differently for everyone.

One solution has been to train officers in de-escalation and conflict resolution techniques, an option tried in major departments such as New York and Seattle. But increasingly, members of the criminal justice community say police need to take a much closer look at who they’re hiring, and how those men and women are being selected for a job that puts people’s lives in their hands.

“The traditional police hiring process really tends to eliminate people; it’s not designed to hire the best,” said Tom Wilson, director of the Police Executive Research Forum’s Center for Applied Research and Management, in an interview with The Crime Report.

According to GoLawEnforcement.com, an online employment resource for nationwide law enforcement, the standard hiring process consists of a written exam—usually multiple choice—an oral board interview, a physical agility test, a polygraph, a psychological exam, a background investigation, and a medical exam. Each candidate completes each exam and then moves on to the next.

Wilson, a 25-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, compares it to a “funnel.”

“You start at the top end of a funnel, and you get all these people to apply and then maybe by the time you actually hire somebody you whittle it down to one out of ten, twenty, thirty, forty.”

The “funnel” only serves to weed out those who don’t make it to the next step.  Most departments then rely on their training academies to further identify who has the desired and necessary skills they are looking for, and who doesn’t.

“If you don’t pass muster in the academy, if you’re not able to pass certain requirements and tests, then you will be eliminated from the process,” said Wilson.

But police academies aren’t always reliable filters. With police departments around the country facing high demands for new officers, some cities’ academies are graduating people who are both ill-prepared and ill-suited for the job ahead.

Cities like Chicago and Baltimore, for example, who are under pressure to hire thousands of new officers, have been criticized for the quality of their new hires.  According to the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Police Department’s academy graduated more than 97 percent of its recruits over a four year period. According to a report in the Baltimore Sun, a third of Baltimore police recruits set to graduate lack even a basic understanding of the laws governing constitutional policing.

“As long as you have (hiring) quotas, you have targets, and when you have targets you’re eliminating good people,” said Stan Mason, host of the radio program Behind the Blue Curtain, in an interview with TCR.

A 25-year veteran of the Waco, Tx., Police Department, Mason was part of the selection process in his agency for 15 years. He points out that for most departments, and especially those in major municipalities, lowering standards to meet numbers begins at the hiring level.

As a result, even positive efforts like diversification can yield poor candidates when selection comes down to just filling required slots as soon as possible.

“When you have to meet numbers and you get down to the last two black guys, neither of them might be worth a thing,” said Mason. “But, one of them is going to get in there because you gotta fill those books.”

Stan Mason

Stan Mason

Mason recommends that cities and their departments focus instead on better understanding the demographics of their communities, stressing a need for departments that strive for a cultural diversity that mirrors the demographics of the cities or towns they police and, as a result, are better equipped to provide the kind of officers those communities really need.

It’s a necessity that Wilson agrees is long overdue for recognition.

“It’s time we start recognizing that different people bring different skills to this job, and we need that diverse background,” said Wilson, who adds that even just changing where and how departments hire those people is a step in the right direction.

In the wake of low unemployment rates, negative public scrutiny, and a shift in what younger generations want in a career, developing new and innovative hiring practices to fill the ranks of police departments is critical.

A 2017 national survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that governments are having more trouble hiring police than any other category of personnel. According to Wilson, this may be due, in part, to an outdated hiring strategy.

“It’s not the old standby that we go to the local colleges, or state colleges, or military bases,” said Wilson. “We need to start branching out a little bit.”

Some departments are.

Proactive Recruiting

In 2017, the Michigan State Police put full-time recruiters in the field, made community partnerships with the Black Caucus Foundation and America Corps, visited churches that recommended candidates, and launched an aggressive social media campaign with videos posted on Facebook and YouTube. Their most recent academy class, set to graduate in 2019, is the most diverse they’ve had in 20 years.

In Dallas, Chief U. Renee Hall launched a program that seeks to hire recent high school graduates as supplemental public service officers who will receive college tuition reimbursement and, upon program completion and reaching hiring age, become eligible to attend the police academy.

Its goals include attracting a new pool of recruits from different areas in the communities that the police serve and thereby strengthening trust.

However, Mason insists that innovative hiring campaigns like these, while positive efforts, are only successful if the departments know the people they’re serving and choose the right officer for the right community.

“You have to understand your city,” said Mason.

“You can’t hire two Blacks, 17 whites, and one Hispanic and say, ‘wow, look at us: we got more people.’ You just have more resources. If the resources can’t be applied effectively, what good is it?”

And for officers like Mason, making sure that departments are hiring people who know the communities they are policing is essential to ensuring everyone’s safety and understanding.

A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center found that in a national survey of nearly 8,000 police officers, 72 percent considered knowledge of the people, places, and culture of the areas they work extremely important to doing the job effectively.

However, many departments today find a lot of their officers live outside the communities they serve.

Does Location Matter?

According to The New York Times, in cities like Baton Rouge, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, a majority of officers don’t live within the city limits. In fact, data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight reports that only 15 of the nation’s largest police forces even require residency for their officers at all. As a result, the number of officers policing communities they actually know is rapidly dwindling, creating greater risk for potentially deadly mistakes.

“If you have a white officer, who has never been around black people, is this guy going to fit in Detroit, Chicago, or Baltimore?” asked Mason.

“This guy can’t handle it; it’s culture shock.”

Faced with this reality, finding the best officers can’t just be about finding the people that culturally or ethnically best suit a specific community.

For David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading national authority on racial profiling, it must also be about finding the people who are able to make a connection with, and adapt to, any community’s culture.

The first step begins with paying attention to how a candidate behaves at home.

David Harris

David Harris

“If I’m recruiting people, I want to know what they do in their own community,” said Harris, a criminal justice author who has also worked as a professional trainer for law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

According to Harris, finding men and women who demonstrate a concrete commitment to the community in which they live, even if it’s not the one they’re applying to serve, is essential to finding out what kind of police officer they will be in the future.

“Do they coach Little League? Do they work at a soup kitchen? Volunteer for meals on wheels? Anything,” said Harris.

“Show me that they are people who care about that sort of thing.”

By finding such community-involved and adaptable individuals, Harris believes that departments can move closer to the more empathetic and conscientious officers that people want. And the departments that will have the best luck in finding these kind of men and women are the ones who reach out to those very same communities and ask, “what do you want.”

While conducting research in this area for his 2005 book “Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing,” Harris had the opportunity to observe the St. Paul Police Department do just that.

“They went to the community and asked them what kind of police department and officers they wanted,” said Harris.

“The people didn’t come up with physically strong, willing to run into a burning building.  What they came up with was good communicator, honest, having integrity, being able to talk to people. Those were the things that the community was interested in. What any community would be interested in.”

For Harris, this kind of cooperation and communication should be the norm, especially during the hiring process. For example, by including civilians and members of the community in police department’s review boards, which interview candidates on their qualifications and character, departments may have a better chance of improving the whole process and veering away from hiring the kind of command and control police officers traditionally sought after in the past by boards comprised mainly of a department’s sworn officers.

In fact, according to the Report on 21st Century Policing, released under the Obama administration, civilian involvement with local law enforcement agencies is essential to improving the state of policing in this country. And while police popularity may be low, a 2017 study by the Urban Institute found that large percentages of people living in the most challenging areas of cities like Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Birmingham, also professed a desire to work with police to solve neighborhood issues.

Community Involvement in Hiring

“A civilian group, or the community more broadly, can and should certainly be helping an agency determine what its priorities are,” agreed Seth Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, and a former Tallahassee, Fl., police officer, in an interview with TCR.

A member of the Columbia, S.C., Police Department’s civilian advisory council, Stoughton explained that, as part of the department’s inclusive selection process, a member of his council always attends both police applicant interviews and officer disciplinary hearings.

Seth Stoughton

Seth Stoughton

Enjoying an equal voice and vote alongside the police chiefs and commanders in the room, these men and women can ask questions and provide feedback on a candidate that helps to better decide if they are the best choice for the job.

Another example of this kind of successful cohesion is Washington D.C. where, according to PBS.org, the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) has won praise for an effectiveness that is based on community outreach, independence, and authority to approve policy and training recommendations to the department.

But while the OPC may be an example of a best-case scenario when it comes to organizing civilian involvement and cohesion with police in the hiring process, Stoughton warns that no two departments are alike. Things like independence and authority are hard to come by, he said.

“The devil is in the details,” Stoughton observed. “How do you pick which civilian or set of civilians is going to be involved in this? How much say does the civilian have?”

In a country with roughly 18,000 different law enforcement agencies, finding the right answer to these questions is no easy task. A report by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) states that the largest impediment to establishing approaches to civilian oversight are the wildly different practices of any two jurisdictions, which can depend on a variety of political, cultural, and social influences.

Inconsistency of this kind can lead to board members being selected by the chief of police or a political official, a biased situation that some would consider no different than having the chief select an officer.

In addition, further damage can be done by the civilian members themselves, who, according to a study by the Columbia Journal on Law and Social Problems, can not only display bias towards the department that hired them, but could also be overly deferential to the police because of a lack of experience.

Shortcomings like these are exemplified by cities like Seattle and Albuquerque where, despite having established civilian oversight and apparent transparency in the past, they find themselves facing an uphill battle to improve their police departments.

In Chicago, a debate continues over whether civilian groups should oversee police at all. While it may be a small step in the right direction, civilian involvement is far from the only solution to finding today’s best, brightest and most empathetic police candidates.

“I think civilian involvement in the hiring process is an easy thing for most agencies and jurisdictions to do,” said Stoughton.

But he added, “I don’t think it entirely or substantially solves some of the problems that various agencies in various communities have experienced.”

Gypsy Cops

When it comes to proper hiring, one of the largest of those problems are known as “gypsy cops.”

Recently, communities in Cleveland were outraged to find out that Timothy Loehman, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, had been hired by the nearby Belair, Ohio police department on a part-time basis.

Despite losing his job in Cleveland for failing to disclose that the Independence, Ohio police department had previously found him unfit to be a member of their own department, Loehman was also permitted to apply at departments in Euclid and RTA. Though he has recently quit amid public pressure, he was still hired in Belair despite his very public and questionable reputation.

“Most would assume that if police departments knew what happened with an officer at a prior department you wouldn’t hire them,” said Roger Goldman, a Callis Family Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, to TCR.

Roger Goldman

Roger Goldman

“That is absolutely not the case.”

Instead, police departments around the country have been rehiring officers with terrible records for years. And while some departments may look into a former officers past before hiring, they are too often either not digging deep enough or are willing to ignore prior misconduct and hire people who are a risk in the face of both state laws and department budgetary issues.

“State law can get in the way of screening officers who come from prior service,” said Stoughton.

According to the Washington Post, some states shield police personnel records, including firings, from public records, while state laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s allow police some form of collective bargaining rights. Thus, police unions are able to appeal any discipline taken against an officer and, more often than not, have them reinstated.

The process is lengthy, complicated and costly and, as a result, many departments prefer to avoid liability altogether and only provide a former employee’s start and end date.

“One agency might not want to tell another agency exactly why an officer no longer works there, because they might be afraid of a defamation lawsuit,” added Stoughton.

On the other end, Goldman said that police departments, especially smaller departments, will often choose to roll the dice on a former officer with a poor record just to save money, rather than spend what they may not have in order to train a completely new hire.

It’s a decision that can cost lives.

“What got me started in all of this was a cop at a St. Louis, Mo., department who was playing Russian roulette with suspects, and despite that was hired knowingly by another department that couldn’t afford a better cop,” said Goldman, who adds that the officer later ended up fatally shooting an unarmed suspect in the back.

‘Desperate for Bodies’

“Some departments are so desperate for bodies that they’re willing to hire anyone.”

But Goldman explains that this pattern can be broken by taking sole authority for hiring out of the hands of local departments and sharing it with the state.

For the last 40 years he has successfully crusaded for state laws that allow for decertification of police in instances of misconduct. Noting that state licensing boards already exist for occupations such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, and even plumbers, he argues that the policing field needs this same type of oversight.

Since New Mexico became the first state to get the authority to revoke licenses in 1960, 46 states have followed suit and established commissions with the power to decertify officers and a total of 30,000 officers have been decertified, according to an article from The Guardian.

However, four states—California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—still lack these kinds of regulatory bodies. Twenty of those states that do have the power can only decertify if the officer has been convicted of a crime, according to The Atlantic. Even some states that have the power to decertify often fail to utilize it, such as Louisiana, which The Advocate reports has only decertified six officers in the last 12 years.

While the issue of decertification is currently only an individual state concern, when plagued with these kinds of inconsistencies Goldman states that it may not be able to succeed without federal involvement.

“These are local matters, but you need federal oversight to make sure that individual departments come up to standards,” said Goldman.

Federal involvement of the Department of Justice (DOJ), in a fashion similar to the consent decrees issued after Ferguson in Missouri, Seattle, and Chicago, could help to motivate state efforts by denying funding to departments that fail to comply with set guidelines.  In addition, where there is currently no national database for recording decertified officers, activity by the DOJ could require one.

“Just how we now have the National Practitioner Databank for healthcare professionals, that has any disciplinary action that has been taken against the practitioner run out of Health and Human Services; so too if a police officer goes across state lines a licensing board would be able to access a federal databank,” said Goldman.

But, so far, the feds have done very little.

Since 2003, states have been required to submit data on officer-involved killings of civilians to the DOJ, but many have repeatedly failed to cooperate, with little to no resulting penalties, reports NBC.com. The only existing resource for recording decertified officers is the National Decertification Index, an independent databank that 45 states submit to and which accounts for 25,000 of the total 30,000 recorded since 1960.

In addition, the current administration has stated that it considers policing a matter of exclusively local oversight, going so far as to suggest cutting funding for the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which provides information and funding to advance the practice of community policing in departments nationally, a major blow to a seemingly already faulty system.

Yet, step by step, state by state, there are pockets of improvement.

Colorado recently passed a law stating that former officers cannot be hired by another department unless they waive any nondisclosure agreements that they may have made. New York, through regulation, has had the power to decertify since 2016, and Hawaii has recently enacted a decertification bill. In the ongoing effort to find the best possible officers, decertification helps prevent departments from hiring anything less and holds them to the same standards as other professions that are not given a badge and a gun.

“Like we do with lawyers, we can do with cops: take away their license, probation, suspension, so forth,” said Goldman.

“Policing requires the same kind of oversight that all these other occupations have.”

Peter Sarna, a 40-year police veteran and former chief of the Oakland Police Department, thinks that ideas like this are sorely lacking in the policing field overall.

“In policing, thinking doesn’t go very deep and it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t look out over the horizon to see what the long term effects might be,” said Sarna in an interview with TCR.

A nationally recognized expert in police training and use of force, Sarna believes that this absence of foresight has not only led to circumstances like the gypsy cops, but also trapped policing in an outdated and unrealistic performance model: one that expects all their officers to be able to perform a variety of different task specific skill sets, at any given time, and to be able to switch rapidly between those skill sets depending on the task.

In addition to the basic tenets of the job, and the everyday potential for danger, police officers today are now called upon to handle a variety of new situations that they were before rarely called upon to deal with. From policing the mentally ill to performing disciplinary actions at schools, all while dealing with an increasingly popularized negative image of policing in general, police today are wearing a lot more hats—perhaps even too many.

When it comes to hiring and selecting, expecting to find large amounts of people who can perform all these duties effectively might be a tall order.

“Maybe you have 1 percent of your cops that you can recruit who are stars,” said Sarna.

“They have the mindsets, they can move quickly among different types of calls, they can catch bad guys, solve family fights, they can do spectacular work. But they’re a small percentage of the workforce.”

Looking for the ‘Renaissance Cop’

According to Sarna, this model of a “renaissance cop” ignores a stark reality of the profession: it requires a multiplicity of tasks performed by a variety of officers to succeed. While the goals of having de-escalation skills, empathy, and conflict resolution abilities in every officer are important and necessary to pursue, he insisted that there will always be those officers who are better at one aspect of the job than the other.

Instead of wasting time searching for new hires based on an idealized model of the perfect cop, he believes that the whole policing profession needs to be restructured and that police officers should be selected for specific positions based on the strengths they develop and bring to the job before and after training.

It is an idea that mirrors the kind of division of labor found in most hospitals today.

“You go to a hospital and there’s a doctor for every part of the body,” said Sarna. “It’s extensive.”

This kind of division of labor is more than necessary in the policing field, where the types of calls for assistance vary widely. And a recognition that certain types of calls warrant specialization and demand certain skill sets has begun to grow, especially when concerning the handling of the mentally ill.

In cities like New York and Chicago, departments have started Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs and created teams of trained officers who respond to any call involving the mentally ill or those in distress.

Sarna, who served as a rank-and-file officer in Oakland before becoming chief, pointed out that this type of specialization was attributable to much of Oakland’s success at that time. And though the “warrior vs. guardian” debate continues to define how officers are chosen, he insists that understanding the need for both, and how to properly assign them, is the key to a more successful, and safer, style of policing.

Tough Questions

But first, departments need to start asking themselves some tough questions.

“Do we need to specifically select a top tier of cops who are crime fighters and can do it well within the law?” asked Sarna.

“And do we also need ‘community service officers’ who can handle a lot of the tedious, mundane things that need to be done to work well?”

For Capt. Victor Davalos, Commanding Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Recruitment and Employment Division, there are no easy answers to these questions. He argues that a department’s ability to implement this kind of overarching specialization depends on specific factors.

“It’s important to know the differences, limitations and environment that every department operates in,” said Davalos.

Though it may be an option for larger departments, he notes that specialization is a luxury that most smaller departments, and even medium-sized departments like the LAPD, can’t afford.

“Unlike, for example, New York, which has about 30,000 officers, we only have approximately 10,000,” Davalos told TCR.

“We have to do a lot more with a lot less.”

And while the LAPD does have a program similar to the CIT teams in New York, where their officers are partnered with mental health specialists and respond to mental health calls together, and can also utilize a SWAT team to respond to very dangerous and high risk situations, Davalos points out that, in any department, there are a lot of calls to service in between those two dimensions.

“We really need officers that are able to respond to all types of situations,” said Davalos.

In order to find them, he and the LAPD feel that, rather than trying to restructure the whole department, a lot of progress can be made by simply making adjustments to policies and procedures that would make hiring easier and better suited to the times. And, for some departments, one such adjustment that is currently up for discussion is the use of marijuana.

Should Past Marijuana Use Disqualify?

In the past, drug use of any kind was considered an automatic disqualifier for service. But as marijuana laws become more relaxed around the country, with Business Insider reporting recreational use legal in 10 states and medicinal consumption legal in 33, police departments are following suit. In places like Chicago, Denver, Portland, police departments are relaxing their policies on past marijuana use in an effort to attract candidates who would otherwise be passed over.

Davalos says the LAPD is following suit.

“As those laws continue to evolve, so must we, so we remain current and we’re not using outdated guidelines,” said Davalos.

In addition, the LAPD and other departments are also reconsidering disqualifying applicants based on credit checks and certain criminal records, both of which, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, disproportionately impact racial minority candidates who are more likely, for multiple reasons, to have low credit scores and more contact with criminal justice in their communities.

By adjusting certain aspects of selection in this way, departments ideally have a chance at widening the pool of applicants they have to choose from.

Aram Kouyomdjian

Aram Kouyomdjian

This was the case in Philadelphia where, in 2017, after lowering the college credit requirements and raising the hiring age, the police department experienced a 20 percent increase in applications from the roughly 5,000 annually that they were accustomed to. More applicants arguably allows departments to be more selective in their hiring and take the time to find the best possible candidate, opening a pathway up to those most needed that gets them through the hiring process much faster for much less.

“If I’m trying to process 10,000 people, many of whom are unqualified, that is a harder drain on my resources than if I’m processing 7,000 candidates who are more qualified,” said Aram Kouyoumdjian, Assistant General Manager (Public Safety) of the City of Los Angeles Personnel Department, the entity that handles testing and produces the lists of eligible candidates certified to be hired for the LAPD’s final review, to TCR.

“It actually makes the process easier for them and for us.”

According to Kouyoumdjian, this more streamlined process, and resulting influx of officers, has allowed his department, which handles every aspect of hiring but the police department interviews, to fine-tune testing to focus more on reading comprehension and communication skills, adjust physical exams to be more in line with what is done in the academy, and take a much harder look at applicants backgrounds than ever before.

“It’s about trying to get more qualified candidates into the process from the get go, as opposed to just testing willy-nilly and spending time screening people out,” said Kouyoumdjian.

Yet some in law enforcement remain concerned that changes such as these could potentially have dangerous results.

A 2016 article for policeone.com warns that a person with poor credit history may be susceptible to bribery, someone convicted of a previous crime may reoffend, or a person who can’t meet physical standards may jeopardize the lives of others.

And in Texas, ksat.com reports that the San Antonio Police Officers Association recently argued that changing the standards for department hires may lower the quality of men and women hired for the job rather than improve it.

Despite these concerns, Kouyoumdjian insists that changing the standards by no means equates to lowering them.

“Our responsibility is hiring officers who can deliver on all fronts.”

“We want officers who can, when circumstances call for it, perform the job of law enforcement, but (who will) also be able to recognize who needs protection and who needs accountability.”

However, although this kind of clear-sighted and optimistic approach may be necessary to finding today and tomorrow’s best police candidates, it might not be enough to tackle the many real hurdles the industry has to overcome.

While practices such as involving the community in hiring, diversifying applicants, decertifying lateral hires, restructuring division of labor, and updating and evolving hiring to suit the times represent some of the best efforts being made today to find the officers we need tomorrow, men like Peter Sarna still remain unconvinced.

Isidoro Rodriguez

“Are we fooling ourselves? Can we actually get people in large numbers, who can perform full spectrum policing? Or is it impossible?”

The answer to those questions may determine the future of 21st century policing in America.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributing writer to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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