Facing Shortages, Police Forces Are Increasingly Willing to Forgive Past Sins to Gain Recruits

Rookie police officers in New York in 1939. In the past, police recruitment was based on military standards that valued uniformity. (Credit: Keystone View Co.)
Rookie police officers in New York in 1939. In the past, police recruitment was based on military standards that valued uniformity. (Credit: Keystone View Co.)

Are you cleanshaven and tattoo-free? What’s your credit score? What about marijuana — ever inhaled?

Becoming a police officer has long depended on having the right answers to questions like these.

But now, faced with thousands of vacancies, a shortage of applicants and a mandate to become as diverse as the communities they serve, police departments are rethinking requirements once considered untouchable.

New Orleans no longer automatically disqualifies those who have injected heroin or smoked crack. Aurora, Colo., has stopped using military-style running tests, but now checks how quickly candidates can get out of a squad car.

Pittsburgh, accused of discriminating against black applicants, recently updated its hiring criteria to include integrity, dependability and “cultural competence,” or the ability to incorporate diverse perspectives.

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John Lozoya, a senior commander with the St. Paul Police Department, said law enforcement now has little choice but to modernize.

“In the past, recruitment has been based on a 1950s model: six feet tall, right out of the military,” he said. “But as we’ve evolved as a society, we realize we’re not like that. We had to look at our hiring practices. We had to adapt.”

The process of becoming a police officer is still onerous — it might be easier to get top-secret clearance than to be hired as a rookie cop. Evaluation can take more than a year, and generally includes interviews, written and oral exams, physical and psychological examinations, a fitness test, a polygraph exam, drug testing, credit checks and an extensive background investigation.

In Los Angeles, untidy financial affairs such as late payments, spending beyond one’s means and failure to pay child support are “potentially disqualifying.”

Police candidates in Nashville are asked to list their neighbors and a decade’s worth of boyfriends or girlfriends, who may be questioned about the applicant’s personality and past behavior.

The process is meticulous for a reason: Officers are empowered to arrest and use force against civilians, and substance abuse and financial problems can make new hires vulnerable to corruption. Still, the questions can get intimate.

Nashville candidates are told to catalog every parking ticket and confess whether they ever ran away from home or faked being sick to get out of work. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of any Communist organization anywhere?” the application asks.

Don Aaron, a Nashville police spokesman, said the questions were meant to produce a “well-rounded vision of police officer candidates before they are hired.”

But elsewhere, police departments are asking whether such standards are relevant to policing today.

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The New York Times