Opinion

New police standards

The report that police departments around the nation are relaxing standards for new recruits may send a shiver down the spines of some. But it probably shouldn't.

According to a recent review of police departments in 50 cities by the Associated Press, many, including a number of departments in major cities, have struggled with a shortage of recruits who could meet existing department standards. One big reason, no doubt, is the war in Iraq.

Thousands of bright, fit young men and women with spotless records are not available for police work because they are serving in the military. In fact, even the military has had to relax its standards in recent months because of the demand for more troops in Iraq.

Police officials also cite a strong economy that presents other job opportunities, baby-boom cops retiring and low salaries as factors contributing to the shortage. Thus, many have been compelled to broaden the search for new blood.

But police departments, for the sake of public relations at least, should emphasize that they are "changing" standards rather than "relaxing" them. In many cases, while they may be accepting recruits with different backgrounds, those recruits are not necessarily less qualified to serve as police officers.

For example, departments in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla., have dropped the requirement for a two-year college degree if the applicant has military or law enforcement experience. That makes sense; experience in the field can trump work in the classroom.

Other departments no longer are disqualifying applicants for minor, long-ago drug convictions or gang involvement. That, too, makes sense. We have a president who has confessed to unspecified youthful indiscretions; why shouldn't police recruits be given the same benefit of the doubt?

In some larger cities, many of the young people who might aspire to serve on the police force grew up in neighborhoods where gang activity and drug use were prevalent. And many of them may have been briefly involved in those activities. But by indiscriminately rejecting all applicants with a criminal record, police departments have been overlooking qualified applicants with the potential to be good police officers -- and who are more likely to have experience in the neighborhoods they will be patrolling.

Some departments also have raised the upper age limit for recruits. Boston, for example, raised its age limit from 32 to 40. Beantown officials say that being well-rounded, having life experience and better judgment may make for a less hotheaded and less trigger-happy cop than a kid just out of school.

A federally funded study last spring found that 10 percent of the nation's police departments had severe officer shortages. While that affects departments of all sizes, big-city departments often are the hardest hit. New York City, for example, is looking to hire 3,000 officers, while Los Angeles needs 1,000 more.

For those who think they might want to be a police officer but are worried that they might not qualify, now might be the time to find out.

IN SUMMARY

Relaxing standards for new police recruits could actually attract better candidates.

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