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.
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.
In April, after years of debate, a Maryland state commission on police standards reversed its 1970s-era policy of rejecting candidates who had used marijuana more than five times since turning 21, or more than 20 times in all.
Last year, Louisville did away with its requirement that officers have two years of college credit.
The New Orleans police, looking to broaden its pool of candidates, dropped a rule that automatically disqualified anyone who admitted prior use of recreational drugs. It now prohibits pot use during the previous two years and use of harder drugs, like heroin and cocaine, within the past decade.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, where the police are seeking 970 officers, said in January that he had been rethinking a prohibition on those with juvenile records.
In Chicago, where police data showsAfrican-Americans are stopped by the police far more often than whites, disqualifying applicants for minor or youthful offenses can exclude minority candidates at a time when the department is desperate to attract them.
“I want to take a look at the general idea that if somebody did something when they were 16 or 17, that doesn’t become an entire impossibility — as long as it’s not serious — to joining a police department,” Mr. Emanuel said.
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Chuck Canterbury, president of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said there was concern about whether the changes would result in a generation of ill-prepared officers.
“People are talking about it, but there is such a recruiting and retention problem — they’re searching for ways to bring bodies in,” he said. “But I’m not sure reducing standards is the best way to do that.”
Standards have evolved over time, particularly when they promoted uniformity at the expense of fairness. In the 1960s, for example, height requirements began to vanish because they excluded far more women than men. The Los Angeles Police Department’s requirement was one of the last, ruled unconstitutional in 1979.
In its drive to diversify, the New York Police Department claims to be one of the nation’s more forward-looking departments. Fifteen years after firing a Sikh officer who refused to remove his turban, the department last year began to allow Sikhs to wear turbans and have short beards.
Last year, Detroit’s police chief, James Craig, began to allow beards for men and stud earrings for women, saying they had no bearing on job performance.
He did so over the objections of Willie Bell, the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, who was a Detroit cop for 32 years. “Appearance is everything,” Mr. Bell said. “No disrespect, but we don’t want to be confused with individuals who are private security guards.”
Some changes deal not with appearance, but with qualities that are harder to measure and that are intended to fight crime by fixing deteriorated relationships.
In St. Paul, the department has experimented with a number of ways to find the best officers, including taking some “situational judgment” questions — meant to test common sense, adherence to police hierarchy and police priorities — off the written exam.
Chief Todd Axtell said the tests might have been unintentionally biased against minorities, proving particularly difficult for those who are not native English speakers.
“We’ve got a lot of diversity in St. Paul, and we’ve struggled with recruiting in the past, so we need to be more thoughtful about these communities,” he said, referring to growing immigrant populations from Southeast Asia, East and West Africa, and Latin America.
The changes seem to be having an effect. Last year, almost half the police academy graduates were minorities.
Ler Htoo, a Burmese refugee who grew up in a camp in Thailand and had trouble mastering English, said he decided he wanted to become a St. Paul officer when he heard from a recruitment officer at his high school.
Recent high-profile police shootings have exacerbated negative feelings toward the police, making recruitment more difficult, particularly among minorities. But Officer Htoo said tensions with officers in his own neighborhood had a different origin.
“Our immigrant community doesn’t like to talk to the police because of how they were treated by the Thai police in the camps,” said Officer Htoo, who was hired two years ago. “When they would see the police, they would run, which is what you had to do. I told them, ‘You can’t do that here.’”
The department’s new written tests now focus more on personal histories and community engagement, and interviews have been refocused to allow applicants to personally explain incidents that may have previously disqualified them.
“Some people have been caught doing bad things and other people haven’t been caught,” Chief Axtell said. “The question we have is, ‘Was ownership taken?’”
As police departments grapple with complaints of excessive use of force and retrain officers to “de-escalate,” or defuse, tense encounters, Chief Axtell said he had used the interviews to identify one personality flaw that in the past might have gone overlooked.
“People who I believe have a short fuse,” he said, “will not get the opportunity in this department.”