Faced with an officer shortage that is only expected to get worse, police agencies in the Baltimore area and across the country are getting creative. They say they don't have a choice: It's becoming increasingly difficult to find the kid who is educated, hasn't used drugs heavily and would rather work for the local sheriff than the federal government.So, nearly 50% of the applicants in some cases are being turned away for previous drug use. Insanity. The potency of our drug laws are laughable when half of the people signing up to enforce them are also breaking them.
"I'd say it's very intense," Tracey Martinelli, a recruiter at the Harford sheriff's office, said of the competition among agencies for new officers. "Applicants are applying to multiple agencies now. Everybody's competing for that same small group of applicants. Just about every agency is struggling."
Officials say the problem is not finding applicants, but finding enough people who meet basic qualifications.
Many applicants pass written and physical tests but drop out of contention because of prior drug use, authorities say. Some departments routinely turn away more than half of applicants because of previous drug use, officials say.
"Nowadays, young people are experimenting with drugs at a younger age - ecstasy, marijuana," said Officer Angela Avent, a recruiter with Baltimore County police.
Some departments have relaxed standards for prior drug use to expand the pool of applicants. In Maryland, the panel that sets statewide hiring standards decided in 2003 to permit applicants who have experimented with cocaine and to loosen standards on prior marijuana use. The panel has considered other proposals to further modify the standards.
Sacramento Police Capt. Kevin Johnson, who lectures nationally on recruiting techniques, said departments should consider loosening drug standards. His recently decided to eliminate any disqualifying factors, and now it takes a "whole person" approach in a deciding whether someone should be hired.
Howard County, seeking to add 20 officers to its 390-officer force, recently started running radio and television ads for the first time. The department's two full-time recruiters have given presentations to criminal justice college students in Waynesboro, Pa., and New York City.
Last year, the department bought a Chevy Tahoe, its windows emblazoned with pictures of officers in tactical unit gear and dramatic poses along with the motto, "Who do you want to be?" A recruiter drives around in the car full time and frequently puts it on display inside Arundel Mills Mall.
Of course, the article avoids the obvious. No one wants to be a cop anymore, why should they? In many areas of the country, community policing has gone away, along with the communities themselves. Baltimore claims to be returning to that style, but good luck while the drug war still rages in our neighborhoods. The drug war has ushered in a realm where body armor and swat team equipment is the new selling point of police departments. The narrative of the honest neighborhood cop who walked the same beat every day, knew the names of the kids who played in the street, and told the local drunk to "move along" instead of slapping him in cuffs to get another "loitering in a targeted enforcement zone" stat to add the books, is a far off dream.
When the police return to enforcing laws that truly keep us safe, I expect the recruitment problem will be lessened. Until then, we are asking these men and women to fight a losing battle against their fellow citizens for a low salary. Somehow I think letting them take the cruiser home for the weekend just isn't enough.