December 28, 2001
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
New York City police recruits are failing out of academy classes and being disciplined for violating department rules at twice the rate they were four years ago, a city-appointed police oversight panel has found.
The findings, in a report to be released today by the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, are a stark indictment of recent recruiting classes in a department that has struggled to find applicants and been criticized for relaxing some hiring standards.
The 49-page report, which was based on a statistical study of six police recruiting classes from 1997 to 2000, also found that the department had not thoroughly checked the backgrounds of some cadets before they joined the force. A handful of applicants were hired even though they were technically disqualified for police service because of such factors as bad driving records, the commission found.
In recent years, the department's recruiting campaigns, some of which have cost as much as $10 million, have largely fallen short of their goals. And the department has been criticized by the police union and other observers for bending its hiring rules to try to meet recruiting goals.
But criminal justice experts said that neither the department's problem nor its efforts to address it were unusual. Police officials across the country are facing shortages of qualified applicants to fill vacancies in their departments. So recruiters in many communities have begun reducing or eliminating previous requirements city officials, for example, waived a $35 application fee last year to make it easier to fill positions.
Some have warned that loosening long-held hiring rules may cause the quality of officers in the department to suffer, with new officers not held to as high a standard as their predecessors.
Although the commission declined to say that its report necessarily bolstered that view, it did note that its findings raised questions about the quality of some of the department's recent hires.
"What this says to us is that this is an area of concern," said Richard J. Davis, chairman of the commission, created six years ago by executive order to monitor the department's anticorruption and accountability efforts. "It's not just that we have the right number of officers, but the right kind of officers."
Inspector Christopher H. Rising, a department spokesman, said that police officials would not comment on the commission's findings because they were still reviewing the report after receiving a copy yesterday.
The incoming police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, also declined to comment on the report, saying that although he had received a copy he had not yet had time to read it.
Through a spokesman, Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union representing most of the city's 40,000 officers, said that he was not surprised by the commission's findings. Mr. Lynch has repeatedly questioned the department's easing of hiring rules and yesterday said he was concerned that such moves might "damage the quality of future members."
Department officials have defended their efforts to expand the force's pool of applicants, saying that such measures would not necessarily result in less qualified applicants.
Besides waiving the application fee, department officials have also occasionally allowed some potential cadets multiple chances to pass a series of agility drills a physical fitness test in which applicants must move over an obstacle course in a predetermined time and welcomed those who have been arrested for minor offenses like evading subway fares.
Police officials insist that since the department began requiring two years' worth of college-level courses for applicants to qualify for the department, standards have actually been raised.
This year, in an attempt to reach a July hiring goal of 1,589 officers, the department asked immigration officials to expedite citizenship applications for potential cadets. They also arranged road tests for some applicants who did not have driver's licenses. Despite those efforts, the final recruiting tally fell just shy of the goal, with 1,500 cadets.
Department officials said that some allowances, even admitting candidates who had been arrested for minor incidents, had sometimes been made for applicants in previous classes.
Nevertheless, the commission urged the department to continue to track potential problems with future classes.
"The commission recommends that the department closely monitor future classes to determine whether a negative trend is emerging, and if so, determine what necessary changes in its hiring criteria and background investigations would be appropriate," the commission wrote.
The commission also found that the graduation rate for academy cadets had fallen by about 8 percent, to 83.59 last year from 91.54 percent four years ago. The failure rate among cadets has doubled to 2.2 percent in 2000 from 1.1 percent in 1997 as has the number of demerits issued to cadets, which increased to 3,184 from 1,500.
The report recommended that the department fully investigate the background of recruits. In a review of 93 hires for the September 2000 recruiting class, the commission found "a significant number of cases where the investigative steps were not taken prior to the candidate's appointment or were never completed at all." It also found four applicants whom the panel believed the department should have rejected including one man with at least 30 moving violations.
Although the commission was not charged with determining the reason for recruiting shortages, it noted that the starting salary for officers may play a role. For years, union officials have complained that city officers are paid far less sometimes as much as a third less than their counterparts in neighboring suburbs.
Thomas Reppetto of the Citizens Crime Commission said the money might make the difference.
"The recruiting base is much smaller than the number of vacancies," Mr. Reppetto said. "What's the answer? You have to sell the job for other reasons and you've got to pay that competitive salary."