Strict drug policy limits potential cops

December 9, 2008 7:42:11 PM PST
Candidates have crowded San Francisco's Hall of Justice in recent days hoping to become city police officers.

But out of every 100 applicants filling out paperwork and getting their fingerprints taken, only six, at best, will make the final cut.

Some may not be able to pass the written test or the physical exam, but one expert believes the recruiting crisis shows a need to revise old standards to fit the reality of a new generation of would-be cops.

"I would say the number one issue that we have to deal with nationally in recruiting law enforcement officers is coming to grips with the drug issue; it's a huge thing," Gary Delanges said. Delanges is head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

"Whether we like it or not, we are starting to have to acknowledge that recreational drug use was the rule rather than the exception for kids in their 20s and 30s," Delanges said.

Aaron Clark's, 30, dreams of becoming a San Francisco cop ended two years ago.

"I smoked a little marijuana here and there and it had been three or four years before I had applied that I'd done any of that, but that was enough," Clark said.

Police agencies nationwide are starting to make changes. The Los Angeles Police Department began relaxing its rules in 2004, going from zero tolerance on hiring anyone who experimented with certain drugs, to allowing some past use on a case by case basis.

It is controversial, but others are following suit. The Oakland Police Department no longer automatically rules out candidates with prior drug histories.

The last time San Francisco adjusted its policy was in 2002.

"It's not carved in stone, as times go on we evaluate and see if something needs changing," police Commander Sylvia Harper said, although standards need to remain high. "We look at the type of drug involved, the frequency and how recently it was used; that determines whether the individual can come in or not."

San Francisco and other law enforcement agencies will not disclose what they are more lenient about, but obviously hard drugs like heroin are deal breakers.

Recruits are required to divulge any substance abuse in their background statements and what they say is double checked by a polygraph test, something baby boomer cops never faced.

"I may have said at the time, 'yeah, I probably smoked marijuana 10, 15, 20 times in college;' that would have excluded me and they would have lost a good cop," Delanges said.

Still, Delagnes knows it's a fine line.

"You have to be very, very careful not to allow people to come into a police department where the temptation and the opportunities are endless for drugs, you being offered drugs and seeing drugs," Delanges said.

The state organization that issues guidelines for California law enforcement tells police applicants that there are very few automatic reasons for disqualification these days, "even issues of prior misconduct, such as prior illegal drug use, driving under the influence, theft or even arrest or conviction are usually not, in and of themselves, automatically disqualifying."

But Clark says the only thing he was told gave him the boot was his drug history.

"I had wanted to be a cop for awhile, i was looking forward to it, excited about it," Clark said. "Just for things in my past to cancel out all that was disappointing to say the least."

Several articles have been published that examine the impact of prior drug use on recruitment efforts. Even with unemployment rates climbing, there are 15,000 openings for officers in California alone.


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