High standards for Md. cops?

Police recruitment is a major challenge in Baltimore City. Mayor Catherine Pugh, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis and the City Council are all hard at work on the issue, and creative ideas — like offering housing incentives to officers who want to live in Baltimore City — are starting to emerge. More good ideas are likely to come from the Mayor’s Innovation Team. But there is a simple, important, free step that we can take immediately: lifting the state regulation that bars anyone who has used marijuana in the past three years from joining the Baltimore Police Department. This rule is arbitrary and hampers recruitment efforts. Further, research shows it particularly impacts black candidates and candidates who live in Baltimore City.

First, the numbers. The Baltimore Police Department’s officer force is at the lowest level in 15 years. Just over the past five years, the police force has declined from roughly 3,000 to 2,500. Meanwhile, homicides, home invasions, muggings, car-jackings and shootings are up dramatically.

Amid this wave of crime, and without adequate personnel, the Baltimore Police Department struggles to meet public demands. For example, the department must constantly triage 911 calls — so that even violent crimes, like an armed mugging, don’t always get a quick response. In a game of policing musical chairs, an inadequate number of officers are shuffled around to meet a surge of crime in one district, only to find another district in even greater need. The rise in crime has led to a major increase in overtime, driving up costs and creating the potential for fraud and abuse.

Meanwhile, political leaders across the board are calling for community policing. But real community policing requires the presence of actual policemen and policewomen on the streets and on the beat — which means more officers.

The department has made a major recruitment push, and its efforts are starting to pay off. So far in 2017, for only the second time in 15 years, the police force has recruited more officers than it lost. But there is a lot of ground to make up. From 2011 to 2016, applications dropped roughly 50 percent. The barriers to recruitment remain significant: a tight labor market, competition with better paying regional police agencies, and a damaged public reputation. 

Current state regulations aggravate the challenge. In Maryland, a state body known as the Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission sets rules for police recruitment, including rules on prior drug use. This past April, at Commissioner Davis’ request, the commission simplified its rules related to marijuana. Previous rules disqualified anyone who had used marijuana at least once in the past three years, five times since becoming 21 years old, or more than 20 times in their lives. In April, the commission adopted the current and more straightforward three-year standard.

As I discuss in a recent report from the Abell Foundation, however, Maryland’s updated rule remains the strictest in the country. While it has made the application and background check simpler, the rule continues to have a significant impact on recruitment. In the first six months of 2017, for example, it disqualified 8 percent of all applicants from Baltimore City. Of the African-American candidates that were disqualified in those months, a full 40 percent were disqualified for prior marijuana use.

The rule is not grounded in data. There is absolutely no evidence that a history of occasional light marijuana use has any impact on police performance. Some cities and states with strict standards point to public opinion condemning marijuana use. But here in Maryland more than half of all residents favor marijuana legalization.

The Maryland Police Standards and Training Commission should build on the reforms of this past spring and eliminate the standard altogether. This would let individual Maryland police departments set their own rules. Instead of an arbitrary three-year rule, other police departments around the country, like Los Angeles, have moved toward a more holistic evaluation process that examines drug use in the context of an individual’s life. The Baltimore Police Department should be allowed to adopt the same policy.

Addressing the crime and violence in Baltimore is hard work. We can’t rely exclusively on the police department — and the department itself requires broader reforms that safeguard the rights of citizens and ensure sound financial management. But when it comes to the current three-year statewide marijuana ban, no one is winning.

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