Keeping Users off Force: Police Urge State to Be Strict on Recruits' Pasts

Article excerpt

Police union head Cpl. John Bartlett Jr. did not like it but was powerless in May when the Prince George's County Police Department relaxed standards, making it easier for former drug users to become police officers.

Hiring more previous drug users would result in distrust among police officers, who would wonder if their fellow officers had reverted to drugs under the pressure of enforcing the laws, said Cpl. Bartlett, the president of the county chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Now the Maryland General Assembly is being asked to create a law that could relieve Cpl. Bartlett's concerns. Legislation introduced this week would set a maximum of past drug use allowed for police and correctional candidates statewide.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate James W. Hubbard, Prince George's Democrat, would allow police and corrections departments to set stricter requirements, but they could not exceed statewide standards, which would be established by a study committee.

The proposal to standardize hiring practices among counties has the support of Maryland State Police and the state Fraternal Order of Police, said Mr. Hubbard, who is a Prince George's County deputy sheriff.

"If the public found out what chiefs allow . . . I think the general public would be amazed," Mr. Hubbard said.

Current Prince George's police hiring qualifications are like policies at many law enforcement agencies in the metropolitan area. They allow some past use of hard drugs such as cocaine, barbiturates and amphetamines.

But police union and trade organization leaders say that doesn't make it right.

"I think it is a sad statement how widespread drug use has been and is," said Beth Weaver of the National Association of Police Organizations.

"We are concerned - as we suspect most departments are - with candidates who have used drugs in the past. . . . You don't want it to become commonplace," said James Pasco, the executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police.

Nearly all local police agencies overlook marijuana use, particularly if it was in the distant past and experimental rather than chronic.

Police departments differ over whether to disqualify applicants who have used harder drugs.

Besides Prince George's County, agencies that accept past hard-drug use in candidates include the Metropolitan Police Department in the District and the police departments of Alexandria and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties.

Local agencies that do not accept candidates who have used hard drugs include state police in Maryland and Virginia and county police in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William. Federal agencies also have tougher standards.

"We do not accept any police candidate who has used hard drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and PCP - even once," said Lt. John Haas, director of personnel for the Arlington County Police Department. "It's a complete disqualification factor.

"We do allow candidates with very limited experimental marijuana usage, perhaps in college. …