Struggling to lure more officers, the Los Angeles Police Department is joining a growing number of law enforcement agencies across the nation in considering less stringent recruitment rules.
Police Chief William J. Bratton said he was drawing up the proposed changes, which would end the LAPD's zero-tolerance rule toward past marijuana use and make it easier for the department to hire people with bad credit histories.
Bratton's idea has ignited a debate within the department, with some fearing that lower standards would bring problem officers to the force and create the potential for more misconduct and corruption. Others question whether people who admit to breaking the law in the past can be trusted not to commit crimes in the future.
But outside law enforcement experts said it would not be a radical departure from what many other agencies already are doing. Some said the rules would end up making the LAPD look more like the population it serves.
"It's definitely not your father's Los Angeles of 1955," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "It's one of those ironies that LAPD, in a city that's pretty hip and sophisticated, is still somewhat trapped in a time capsule."
O'Donnell said that a police department should have police officers with "real-life experience," which can involve marijuana use and even some minor criminal problems, so that the department can better deal with "real-world problems."
Bratton said some of the LAPD's standards regarding drug use and a candidate's financial history may be "artificially high." He is considering reducing the department's zero-tolerance drug requirement so it is in line with federal law enforcement standards. The FBI requires its candidates to have no more than 15 uses of marijuana and not within the three years before the application date. The FBI also requires that other drugs, including steroids, not be used more than five times and not within 10 years of the application date.
"The reality is, kids today ... may in fact have sampled drugs some time in their life," Bratton said this month. "Does that mean we should automatically disqualify them? I don't believe so."
The move comes as the department is pushing to meet its goal of a 10,000-officer force by next summer. To enter the LAPD, candidates must undergo a series of tests and evaluations, including a background check, a psychological evaluation, a physical abilities test and a polygraph. Only one in 12 candidates makes it through the process, said Scott DeYoung, the department's chief personnel analyst.
Bratton has long pushed to expand the LAPD, pointing out that the police force is far smaller per capita than those in other major cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Until now, city officials have been unable to fund Bratton's goal of boosting the force to at least 12,000 officers.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said hiring new officers is a top priority. So if more money is found for additional hiring, Bratton's proposed recruitment rules -- if approved by the City Council and the Police Commission -- could bring new officers on more quickly.
But some are skeptical.
"Anything that would reduce standards, we would have a serious concern about," said Los Angeles police union President Bob Baker. "We certainly don't want to reduce the qualifications it takes to become a police officer."
Michael Lyman, a criminal justice professor at Columbia College in Missouri, said he was dubious about recruits who have broken the law by possessing marijuana, a misdemeanor.
"I think what this is doing is inviting trouble, because you are bringing a known rotten apple into the barrel," he said. "If he/she has been willing to break the law prior to becoming a police officer, what's to say if they are going to be any different behind the badge?"
Relaxing recruitment policies -- though in a much more extreme way than Bratton is proposing -- has brought problems to some police departments. In 1993, there were 79 arrests of officers in Washington, D.C. Police attributed the problems with the classes hired in 1989 and 1990, when investigators, in an effort to quickly build up the force, did not spend as much time doing background checks and interviewing candidates' former employers.
Last year, the D.C. police force significantly toughened its recruitment rules, requiring candidates to have some college credits. The change came after studies suggested that officers who attended college may have better comprehension skills in court, write better reports and are apt to resolve situations with less use of force, said Capt. Kevin Anderson, director of recruiting for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington.
"It does make recruiting harder," Anderson said, adding that it has cut the number of applicants in half. "In the long run, it's supposed to make for a better officer and a better department."
Still, Bratton's proposal is generally in line with what other departments are trying.
In recent years, the Chicago and New York police departments have dropped their minimum age for applicants to 21 from, respectively, 23 and 22.
Several metropolitan police departments such as New York, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami-Dade and Boston have less stringent policies on drug use.
In Boston, candidates are not automatically disqualified if they admit to using drugs in the past. Candidates are disqualified, however, if they are convicted of a felony. In Detroit, a candidate who hasn't smoked marijuana in the last five years may still be considered for a job.
Miami-Dade's police force also allows past marijuana use but requires that applicants have not used the drug within the last two years. But for many police departments, any past use of felony drugs, such as cocaine or opium, disqualifies the candidate.
Sgt. Ronnie Cato, president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, an organization of black LAPD officers, said Bratton's announcement will open the doors to minority recruits who often fail the department's background check because of bad credit history arising from divorce or low-paying jobs.
Cato said some minority officers rejected from the LAPD get hired at other local law enforcement agencies such as the school and airport police.
In addition, Cato said, there are a lot of young people who have experimented with marijuana in college.
"If your president can smoke a joint, if your Congress people can smoke a joint, you mean to tell me a police officer can't smoke the joint when they were in college?"
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.