My law enforcement career included more than thirty-one years as a Chief of Police in two different cities in different states. Both were relatively small cities with populations less than 25,000, located near large metropolitan police organizations. As a part of my professional responsibilities, I conducted numerous interviews with applicants to get to know them better, and to determine whether they would be a good fit for our department. However, I was clearly not prepared for some of the applicants that I met during these processes.
Basic Philosophy: No matter what cars, equipment, firearms, buildings, and tools you have at your disposal, the people are the most important part of a police department. Professional police officers can do their jobs, and still be polite, courteous, and professional. But, departments must start with good people. When Bear Bryant was asked about recruiting at the University of Alabama, he said that “You can’t make chicken salad without chicken.” To have a good team, you must start with good people.
I am well aware that there are Chiefs/Sheriffs/CEOs who do not participate in oral boards during the screening processes, and they delegate these duties to others in the department. It certainly saves valuable administrative time, and it tends to absolve the Chiefs/Sheriffs/CEOs from taking responsibility for screening and hiring candidates. It was suggested to me, on more than one occasion, to let other people handle this responsibility because it would shield me from being the “bad guy” when eliminating candidates, or hiring people who did not work out. This was especially true when candidates had political connections. However, I considered this to be one of the most important factors in shaping and molding a professional organization, and I was willing to take the risks and dedicate the time to participate in the hiring processes.
One would expect police applicants to fit a certain profile. In a perfect world, they should be clean cut, well dressed, no criminal history, no drug history, polite, respectful of authority, articulate, cool under pressure, and educated. Law enforcement experience and/or military service are also considered positive backgrounds for law enforcement applicants. They should have good common sense, and ideally, they should be problem solvers. However, you will see that these traits were often lacking in the real world.
The Applicant Pool:
As an adjunct professor at a local university, I found that young people had access to more information that I had ever imagined possible. The Internet provided them with an unlimited volume of information, and I somehow misinterpreted this into believing that perhaps the students were smarter than my generation. Hiring intelligent problem-solvers was going to be a breeze, or so I thought. There were some basic skills taught to me as child, and I simply assumed that we had passed these along to the next generation. I was wrong!
I was walking across the parking lot at the university, and I spied a young woman with the “I lost my puppy” look. She was visibly upset and close to tears. I stopped and identified myself as a police officer and professor, and I asked if I could be of assistance. The young lady produced an electronic key fob on a key chain, and she explained that she knew the batteries were getting weaker and weaker, and now it did not work at all. She pushed the “open” button repeatedly, and the car doors remained locked. I asked her if I could see the electronic key fob and chain, and she handed them to me. I inserted the key into the car door and turned it, and it immediately unlocked the door. I opened the door and handed her the key. Apparently, she had always used an electronic device to open her car door, and she had no idea that she could insert a key into the door to open it!
Our police department received a call from a young, distraught, teenager who informed the emergency communications operator that the electronic locks in her car did not work, and she was locked in her car, unable to get out. I don’t think that this requires additional comment.
We had one new recruit who was admonished by his sergeant for wearing scuffed up, dull shoes. The following day, the sergeant confronted the recruit about the condition of the shoes, and the recruit swore that he had put shoe polish on them. The sergeant hesitated, and asked the recruit if he knew that after applying polish, the shoes had to be buffed and shined. Apparently, no one had ever taught this recruit how to shine his shoes.
We had one young officer who called in that he had a flat tire, and he needed someone from Public Works to come and change it. The patrol sergeant advised him that public works was busy, and the officer needed to change his own tire. The officer advised that he had no idea how to change a tire.
One new recruit asked to speak with her sergeant after roll call. She sat across from her sergeant and stated, “Just because you are my boss, you act like you can tell me what to do!”
Clearly, there are many basic skills and expectations that have not been passed along to the next generation. Our hiring pool is comprised of these individuals.
Job interviews are necessary to assess the individual applicants while gleaning additional information that was not covered on the application form. Additionally, a polygraph exam is part of a job interview, and the polygraph interviews can be both shocking and entertaining. Before we implemented mandatory polygraph testing, our applicants were basically a bunch of “choir boys” who had never used illegal drugs or stolen anything. After we implemented the polygraph testing, we found and entirely different picture. Applicants had done drugs, stolen from employers, and paid hookers for sex. Whether or not the “lie detector” is accurate, it certainly improves one’s memory.
The following examples are taken from interviews, polygraph interviews, and general background processing:
One applicant arrived late for his interview, and he walked into my office while wearing faded blue jeans, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes. He then plopped down in the nearest chair, leaned back, and started telling me how he was a very good applicant, but I probably would not hire him anyway. He was half right!
One female applicant had made it through most of the background screening, and she appeared to be a good candidate. But during the polygraph, she confirmed that she was married, but “not in a conventional way.” Of course, we asked for a more detailed explanation, and she said that she had never lived with her husband. When asked, “Why?”, she said that he was in prison. When asked what he was in prison for, she said that he was prison for a murder conviction. When asked why she would marry a man in prison for murder, she explained that Aryan Nations paid her $10,000 thinking that he might get out of prison on parole faster if he was married.
One applicant had worked for a small department, and he had the most perfect resume ever. But during the interview, he stated that over the past year, he had more than 100 resisting arrest cases. As though this was not enough of a red flag, when we contacted his department, they told us that he was under investigation for misconduct off duty. Apparently, he was in a bar with a friend, and the friend got into an argument with another patron. When his friend was challenged to go outside to settle it, the applicant gave the friend his duty pistol, and the friend promptly went outside and shot the other guy.
One applicant failed to mention that she and her boyfriend were police officers in a neighboring jurisdiction. And during a particular argument, she took her service pistol and shot up his police car. At least she established that she could shoot a pistol accurately.
One applicant admitted to stealing packages at his previous job at UPS. But, he said that they had covertly videotaped him so we could not use the information against him. He was wrong.
Another applicant, from the Atlanta area, said admitted to dating one of the dancers (hookers) at the Gold Club, and he had failed a drug test. But, he assured that they had not followed the proper procedures, so we could not use this information against him. He was wrong.
One applicant filed an EEO complaint against me claiming that I did not hire her because she did not have ovaries. I explained to the EEOC investigator that the well-qualified man we hired for the job did not have ovaries either. After investigators saw her resume with whiteout on it, her poor handwriting, and limited skills, and they compared that with the successful applicant’s resume and application, the complaint went away.
One applicant admitted to using and selling drugs for many years, but he informed us that we could not use this information against him because he told the truth.
More than one applicant reported for written testing, only to be arrested on outstanding warrants. When we handcuffed and removed the applicant(s), we just told the other recruits that this is what happens if you fail the test!
One applicant was particularly outstanding and memorable. He had a college degree, he had completed the Police Academy, and he was well dressed and well spoken during this interview with the Oral Review Board. After he left the interview, board members started deliberations, and one female board member said that he looked so good that she was trying to think of her single friends to possibly set him up with. Another board member was a detective, and he immediately said, “pervert!” This led to an interesting exchange including the statement that, “You have no evidence of any kind to show that his applicant is a pervert!” A couple of weeks later, on a polygraph, we found that this applicant was into child pornography.
We found one applicant that was an experienced law enforcement officer with outstanding credentials. We also found out that he was afraid of the dark.
One applicant explained to the polygraph operator that he really does not like police officers… they are typically a bunch of ***holes! The applicant stated that he was willing to lower himself to work as a police officer. The polygraph operator, who was a police sergeant dressed in civilian attire, was a little offended.
One of our interview questions was: “What are you famous for?” We asked this question at the end of interviews just because it was an unusual question that provoked interesting responses. Most responses were innocuous and not particularly noteworthy. But some responses were memorable:
Response: I don’t take directions very well… because I am usually right!
Response: I don’t get along very well with people.
Response: I have a lot of traffic tickets.
Response: I have filed for bankruptcy twice, but I am learning to manage my personal finances.
Response: “Go Gators!” Note: It was a casual Friday, and I was wearing a FSU Seminole (rival school) polo shirt.
Response: I am really too smart and educated to be a police officer, but I am willing to step down to that level.
Response: I really need to take 4 weeks off next month because of a social commitment.
Drugs and Alcohol:
One applicant was being polygraphed, and he admitted to smoking marijuana. When the polygraph operator asked when was the last time he had used, he stopped and looked at this watch. He was asked what he was thinking using marijuana an hour before the polygraph. He simply explained that he was nervous, and the pot would calm him down.
Another applicant had used cocaine the day before the polygraph. He explained that he thought the cocaine would get him “up” for the test.
One applicant had used and sold anabolic steroids for years, but he explained that they weren’t “drugs” so we could not use it against him. He was wrong.
One applicant said that he had only experimented with marijuana, and then admitted to using it more than 100 times during the past year. We wrote him off as a slow learner.
One applicant said that he had used just about every kind of drug. When asked about how many times, he said to just choose any number and multiply it times 10.
A neighboring jurisdiction had an experience with an applicant that bears repeating. They had a group of applicants scheduled to take their physical fitness exam on a Saturday morning. One applicant drove to the exam, and it was immediately apparent that he was impaired. He had been at a bachelor party the previous night, and he was still intoxicated. He was arrested for Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol.
One applicant misspelled the name of the high school he graduated from. But, he had a diploma from that high school!
One applicant misspelled the name of the police department to which he was applying. Once he misspelled “Atlantic”, and then he misspelled “Beach.”
One applicant put on his application that he had been valedictorian. However, he misspelled “valedictorian.”
Usually when someone was hired, this was a sign that s/he had passed a rigorous background investigation, and s/he had established a certain level of integrity and maturity. However, sometimes someone slips through the cracks with uncanny stupidity.
One applicant that we hired had demonstrated an outstanding military career including a variety of medals and citations. His DD 214 listed multiple accomplishments that would make anyone proud. He had also attended a police academy so the police department would not need to pay him to attend months of basic training at the local police academy. He was an ideal applicant in every way.
When this individual came in for a job interview, he was wearing a Ranger lapel pin. I have known a number of Army Rangers, including my brother-in-law, who I have enormous respect for, but I had never seen someone wear such a pin on civilian attire. I specifically asked him if he was an Army Ranger, and he answered in the affirmative. I told him I have friends that were Rangers, and they are outstanding individuals.
He interviewed well, passed background check and polygraph test, and he was recommended for hire. He was assigned to the Field Training Officer program, and by all accounts he was doing well as a recruit. However, the question arose from one of the police officers relative to our new man’s Ranger credentials. Specifically, a veteran officer asked which class the new man attended in Ranger School, and the new recruit did not seem to have an answer. This was very unusual because Rangers can invariably identify their class number.
A review of the DD 214 did not show a Ranger designation, so the new man was asked for verification. The new man brought in a form showing that he had in fact attended and successfully completed US Army Ranger School. Just to be sure, we sent an investigator to Ft. Benning, Georgia where we knew that they would provide undeniable proof that this man had or had not completed Ranger training. He had not… and the form he had provided to verify his completion of the school was forged. When confronted, he admitted to lying about it. His employment was terminated.
All of these are true stories, and I know that other police administrators have similar stories.
Summary: All humor aside, the applicant pool for police officers is a serious concern. It has become more and more difficult to find candidates who can pass a drug test and a basic background investigation. Nationwide, there are thousands of open law enforcement positions that remain unfilled. In the present anti-police climate, hiring qualified professionals is going to be a challenge for years to come.