In the wake of George Floyd, a question looms: Who should be an officer?

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a four-part series that will examine policing in California following George Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests and calls for widespread reform. Part 1 explores how potential police officers are recruited and selected.


Few job applications probe so deeply.

Have you ever called in sick when you were well?

Have you ever cheated on your taxes?

Have you ever sexted at work?

The application process for becoming a law enforcement officer – including a background check and psychological evaluation – is one of the most grueling, psyche-scrubbing, examinations you’ll ever find.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, recruiters can boot you if you’ve told jokes using a “derogatory stereotype” or used force to get your way.

So, if the hiring standards aim to identify bigots, why do numerous recent studies, from the National Academy of Sciences and Texas A&M, among others, show rampant racial bias in police forces around the country?

Why do so many videos pop up showing police using violence against unarmed people like Eric Garner and Philando Castile and  George Floyd? And why are those images so often followed by other videos of police using violence against unarmed protesters?

And even if it’s true that the vast majority of police aren’t lashing out violently, why is excessive force – police hitting taxpayers, the people who pay their salaries – still a national problem, 29 years after Rodney King?

With the coast-to-coast demand for social justice and the increasing pressure on law enforcement to reform or get defunded, a fundamental question is:

Who should be a police officer?

Evolving qualifications

Police leaders in California say hiring standards are tougher than ever, despite a drop in applications. Critics say good recruits might be getting hired, but they are ruined by old school supervisors who oversee their training and early work on the streets.

Police recruiters insist education and empathy are now more important than traditional physical attributes, like being able to scale a 6-foot fence or drag a 165-pound dummy. Hiring at the LAPD – one of the world’s biggest police forces, with about 9,000 sworn officers — emphasizes tact and diplomacy. That’s expected to be emphasized even more now that the city is moving $150 million out of the police budget and promising residents it will be a kinder, gentler department.

“(Change) doesn’t happen overnight,” said Los Angeles Councilman Gil Cedillo, who stresses matching officers with the right jobs and not expecting them to do things like COVID testing. “It takes time in the training, in the negotiations with the union.”

Cedillo says it starts with the job itself, and the employer, appealing to the right kind of person.

“Is this an LAPD that people want to join?”

Recruiters for Los Angeles and other departments are betting that seeking new qualities for recruits will trickle up, creating a different mindset in the force.

“When I got into it, 20 years ago, fitness was a big deal; military (experience) was a big deal. Now, it’s the totality of the person,” said San Jose Police Lt. Stephen Donohue, who is in charge of the department’s recruiting effort. “We don’t want the guy that’s going to get into a bar fight. We want the guy that walks away.

“We don’t want to teach you to be a good person, we can’t do that,” he added. “We have to hire good people.”

Despite all the effort on the recruiting side, video shot in May shows San Jose Police Officer Jared Yuen profanely antagonizing Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and allegedly firing rubber bullets at them.

And even as the definition of “ideal’ police recruit evolves, in San Jose and elsewhere, police and reformers note that law enforcement hires from the human race and that basic human problems are bound to slip through.

“You can’t polygraph for racism,” said Charlie Scheer, an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Scheer said departments now try to “hire the heart and train the brain,” and the physical parts of the job aren’t as critical.

“We’re not interested in only dragging the dummy and vaulting the wall.”

But Scheer also said while police might be looking for compassionate candidates, their recruiting campaigns often emphasize the potential for action over empathy.

“There’s a disconnect in how we’re selling the career to these applicants, we ‘Starsky & Hutch’ them,” Scheer said, referring to a television show that portrayed police as streetwise action heroes.

“We’re not selling the entirety of the job.”

A 2018 recruiting video for the La Habra Police Department is typical. The one-minute spot features numerous scenes of cool police equipment and rifle-toting SWAT officers in camouflage, but nothing showing a civilian being helped by a compassionate officer.

One message stressed is this:  In La Habra, you don’t have to wait eight to 10 years to get on special details like SWAT.

It’s the kind of message that prompts distrust from some who are seeking broad police reform.

All the talk about hiring compassionate, empathetic people is “absolutely lip-service,” said Alesia Robinson, a member of Orange County Protest, a civil rights advocacy group.

“It’s like they’re training warriors instead of people who can protect and serve,” she said.

Darron Spencer, author of the book “Humane Policing: How Perspectives Can Influence Our Performance,” said a police force’s behavior is shaped more by training and on-the-street experience than the mindset of the new hires.

“A majority join (law enforcement) because they want to help. But empathy, compassion and charisma are trained out of them,” Spencer said.

“There is a population (that join) because they want to carry a gun and drive fast.”

Emotional intelligence

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes says he’s looking for people who don’t necessarily fall into any single category.  He’d like deputies who can be a guardian or a warrior, depending on the situation.

Under Barnes, who was elected in 2018, the department has looked for applicants from service industries, because of their experience with customers.

“We want people who communicate well, who know how to solve problems, can effectively deal with difficult people and are customer service oriented,” Barnes said.

“Many people considering a career in law enforcement think we want only the biggest, the strongest, and the fastest,” Barnes added. “We want the best person for the job.”

Barnes’ department, with 1,873 sworn deputies, is far better educated than the community it serves. Nearly nine out of ten Orange County deputies have a bachelor’s degree or better, compared with about four in ten college graduates in the general population.

But that’s rare. Nationally, only about one in three police officers hold a four-year college degree and about half have a two-year degree, according to a study published in 2017 by the National Police Foundation, an independent group aimed at improving policing.

Few departments require candidates to have a four-year degree. That said, pre-pandemic, many departments around the country were having a had time filling vacancies with 63% of law enforcement agencies reporting a drop in applicants, according to the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, DC.

At the San Jose Police Department, yearly applications have fallen by more than 2,700 since 2016.

During that same period, applications have dropped by about 1,000 a year at the Santa Ana Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The reasons are diverse:

The advent of cellphone cameras has generated more criticism over police conduct. Officers are seen by many as an invading force rather than as rescuers. What was already a high-stress job has become one with little margin for error. And, in addition to traditional police work, officers in many departments often must act as social workers, dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill.

With public perception killing morale, good recruits are less eager to apply, said Spencer.

“You have less people who are empathetic joining the profession because why should I do that when I can do something else?” he said.

The non-profit Police Executive Research Forum, an education group for law enforcement, says in published reports that some departments are lowering standards, such as education requirements or bans on visible tattoos, to entice applicants.

While every department is different, most are looking for level-headed candidates, with high communication skills and a deep desire to serve the public, according to the National Police Foundation.

The foundation estimates the cost of recruiting, training, equipping and grooming a new officer at $100,000.

Ideals vs. reality

For all the talk about hiring people with strong people skills, the current qualifications to get into police work look much as they have for a generation or more.

In California, the minimum requirements are set by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or POST, though individual departments are free to beef up those requirements.

The minimum age in California is 18, while some departments set the standard at 20 to 21. All require at least a high school diploma or an equivalent.

Many also specify physical attributes.

At the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, you have to be able to do 30 pushups in two minutes, 30 situps in two minutes and run 1 ½ miles in 14 minutes to even get in the door.

It gets rougher from there. In police academies, recruits who graduate must drag a 165-pound dummy 32 feet, scale a 6-foot chain-link fence and run a 99-yard obstacle course.

There’s also a lean toward military experience. Though many police departments require recruits to have 40 to 60 college credits, that requirement is often waived if a veteran arrives after four years of honorable service in the military.

However, some police recruiting experts caution that military veterans sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. At San Jose PD, among others, that does not prevent them from being hired and provided help.

Background checks poke into every relationship the recruit has had as well as their social media use. Investigators will indeed find the ex-girlfriend you forgot to tell them about or the casual date.

There is also a background application that gives the recruit a chance to self-report any misdeeds. Lying or omitting facts is an automatic rejection.

Other deal breakers are convictions for felonies, domestic violence and misdemeanor assault. Recruits also cannot be on parole or probation. However, there is a loophole: offenders sometimes charged with a felony or other serious crime can plead down to a reduced charge that could still make them eligible for hire.

Officers suspected of misconduct can agree to resign, ending any internal investigation and leaving them open to lateral elsewhere.

Those who pass that background checks and get hired typically proceed to a police training academy, which lasts 20 to 26 weeks.

One issue that isn’t dealt with in police recruiting, directly, is race.

A 2018 analysis of criminal justice students by Scheer and Michael Rossler, a professor at Illinois State University, shows that many of the people interested in police work believe officers racially profile minorities.

More than two-thirds of the black criminal justice students agreed that police racially profile people, compared with a little more than half of the Latino students and less than a third of the white students.

Alexis Hoag, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, said racial profiling is ingrained in society and goes beyond policing.

“There’s a much larger issue at play,” Hoag said. “With slavery came a racial hierarchy which produces this assumption of criminality with brown and black skin.’’

Nationally, police departments are whiter than the communities they serve, according to published reports.

In Fontana, some 61% of police officers are white, versus just 13.8% of the city’s population.

Fontana police officials say they are aware of the disparity and are concentrating on recruiting more diverse officers.

“The result of those efforts are that over the last two years, 18 out of the 27 sworn officers hired by the Fontana Police Department have been female or races other than white Non-Hispanic,” said Sgt. Kellen Guthrie.

In Santa Ana, a city where just 9.4% of the population is white, the police department is 31.4% white.

In Riverside County, the population is 34% white while the Sheriff’s Department is 54% white.

Hoag said a direct demographic match-up isn’t essential. She noted that Black officers sometimes commit violence against Black civilians.

What’s more important, she said, is to teach criminal justice students and new police recruits the history of racism and how it plays out in 21st century law enforcement.

“Teach what law enforcement’s role is in lynching and the reign of racial terrorism,” Hoag said. “I think that would go far in teaching why communities of color don’t trust police. (They) frame the issue as being a few bad apples when we know it’s a rotten apple tree.”

She said recruiting the most understanding, compassionate applicants won’t help if they become indoctrinated in a police culture that targets people of color.

“You get promoted if you fall into line,” Hoag said. “You get the perks.”

Added Spencer: “There are some bigots in law enforcement. You’re not going to change those values on an individual level. But we need to make it unacceptable for them to be in the profession…

“You have to separate the flashpoint from the gasoline.”

Coming next Sunday: How should police officers be trained in California?


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