Roll Call. Lowering standards not the way to attract new police officers

Departments must maintain comprehensive hiring process

There is an alarming trend in law enforcement these days. It is a push nationwide to reduce entry-level requirements for new police officers – if not eliminate them entirely.

For decades, law enforcement agencies have had a comprehensive entry-level process for hiring police officers, and they should have. However, after George Floyd was killed by Officer Derek Chauvin almost three years ago in Minneapolis, there has been a full-court press nationwide by many chiefs, sheriffs and elected officials to loosen these requirements. This already has been done in Memphis, and some states want to eliminate the requirements.

Recently, the New Hampshire Police Chief’s Association proposed legislation to eliminate physical fitness standards at the entry level. This is the first such legislation proposed for removing the entire physical fitness process.

Standards for physical fitness are set for a reason. Law enforcement is physically demanding and often dangerous work. Eliminating basic physical fitness standards is a bad idea and opens departments to many problems, including increased officer injuries. In addition, more use-of-force situations could escalate because some officers would need more physical ability and techniques to control subjects quickly due to being out of shape.

There is a push to eliminate physical fitness standards and establish entry standards for criminal backgrounds. For example, candidates are no longer disqualified on an arrest if it is not a felony conviction. Many police agencies also have loosened educational requirements or eliminated them.

Many other agencies nationwide already have lowered their standards, including agencies in Chicago, Florida and Tennessee. For example, several of the officers indicted in Memphis for the murder of Tyre Nichols were hired under the Fast Track Program, which loosened its requirements because it had difficulty recruiting new officers. The fast-track process was never a good idea and has proved to be a disaster, but agencies still are embracing it.

While there is no doubt there is a shortage of police officers, departments cannot overlook the necessity to recruit and retain qualified individuals who pass minimum standards – physical and otherwise.

Typically, law enforcement agencies have had a lengthy process to hire officers. In most communities, the process is as follows: Candidates take a written test and go through interview boards. Their names are then put on an eligibility list and are ready for the next hiring stage. First, there is an intense background investigation that includes a medical exam, psychological exam, and, in some cases, voice analyzer testing and polygraph. In addition, almost all agencies require a psychological exam by a licensed psychologist. All of the information is compiled and a board makes a recommendation to the police chief for hire. Typically, the chief also will do a final interview with candidates.

A former lieutenant in charge of recruiting for the Memphis Police Department told PBS recently that they would allow anyone to be a police officer because they wanted to increase their numbers and fill slots. The lieutenant said the candidates were not ready for the job, but he was told to hire them anyway. In addition, the department gave recruits a $15,000 signing bonus and a $10,000 relocation allowance while phasing out requirements to have their college credits, military service or previous police work not count for anything.

In almost all police departments, culture eats policy for lunch. If you do not have checks and balances, you will have problems. It would be best to have strict supervision and a comprehensive hiring process, especially for recruits.

Now a nationwide proposal to lower police hiring requirements to increase the candidate pool because municipalities are having difficulty recruiting new officers is just the latest attempt to diminish the professionalism and integrity of the profession.

I find this very disturbing and quite troublesome. Police recruitment and entry-level standards must be upheld.

Tom Weitzel is the former chief of the Riverside Police Department.