Drug past of police recruits debated

As Md. panel considers easing rules to shore up ranks, some up in arms

February 06, 2004|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A state panel that sets standards for police hiring and training throughout Maryland is considering a proposal that would allow recruits to become police officers even if they had experimented with heroin, LSD and PCP - a move aimed at increasing the pool of applicants for short-staffed departments.

The plan, however, is drawing stiff opposition from a broad range of police commanders and union leaders who contend that hiring officers who have used those substances sends the wrong message about the acceptability of criminal behavior.

The critics are concerned that a history of prior drug use could harm an officer's credibility in court and reveals serious character flaws. A decision by the board last year to permit applicants who have experimented with cocaine is also being questioned.

"These are people who have committed crimes even though they haven't been arrested," said Gary McLhinney, chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. "These people made poor choices in their lives and don't deserve to become police officers. ... We're giving people a lot of authority, a weapon and, under certain circumstances, the ability to take someone's life."

Having been convicted of a serious drug offense eliminates a potential recruit. However, agencies screen applicants for past drug use, even if it did not result in a conviction, in interviews and polygraph examinations.

Members of the Maryland Police Training Commission, which is lead by the state police superintendent and includes police chiefs, sheriffs and union officials on its 14-member board, will meet in April to consider the proposal that would allow recruits to have experimented with heroin, PCP and LSD and still be considered for jobs.

The board has discussed that proposal since November and is considering a January draft of regulations, commission staff members said.

The new guidelines would allow recruits to have used those three drugs - and all other illegal substances - up to five times in their lives but only once since the age of 21.

Currently, candidates are barred from consideration if they have ever used heroin, PCP and LSD. Not including marijuana, recruits must have abstained from using all other illegal drugs for two years before applying for a police job and may not have used the drug more than a total of three times. The standards for marijuana are far more lax.

Already, the board has loosened guidelines concerning cocaine and marijuana use. In October, it voted unanimously to remove a prohibition on hiring candidates who had tried cocaine. That change took effect in November and has been criticized by police chiefs and union members who were recently notified about it.

Although the commission's guidelines set minimum standards, local police agencies can set higher thresholds for recruits and officers.

`Thorny issue'

Board members and staff workers said the commission was seeking to lower restrictions to boost the number of recruits eligible to be police officers, especially in smaller departments that are struggling to fill their ranks and have difficulty competing with larger agencies.

"The challenge is to effectively balance the need to maintain the highest standards for police recruits while maintaining a satisfactorily large enough pool of candidates," said Raymond A. Franklin, assistant director of the commission, which was established to set state-wide thresholds for the selection and training of officers in the 1960s. "It's a thorny issue."

The commission made the change regarding prior cocaine use because departments were increasingly seeking waivers to allow candidates to join their agencies even though they had dabbled with cocaine, Franklin said.

`Fair shot'

Annapolis Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson, who is a member of the commission, supported removing the cocaine restriction.

"You have to look at the whole set of circumstances," Johnson said. "You have to give a candidate a fair shot."

Many departments - such as the state police and those in Annapolis and Howard County - generally follow the commission's drug guidelines. But others, such as the Maryland Transportation Authority and Baltimore police departments, set higher standards for prior drug use and will not consider those who have tried cocaine.

"We're going to stay with our standard that you cannot use or have any cocaine in your background," said Lt. Col. Kathleen Patek, who oversees the city department's police academy. "If you take someone who has drug use in their background, it says a lot about their moral character, their integrity. They have had dealings with the criminal element."

Baltimore County police said they continue to bar applicants who used cocaine but are studying the November changes before making a final decision.

"We're not sure which way we're going to go with it," said Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan.

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