A few years back, a White House national security cyber guy told me that the biggest stumbling block to the United States being capable of meeting the threat of cyber attack was that the damn coders were so . . . coder-ish. There were limits as to whom the government would hire, and those limits included people who committed crimes. Like smoking pot or downloading music illegally.
There were two things that almost all good coders did. Smoke pot and download music illegally. It was a problem. Sure, there were coders who didn’t, but not enough and, I was told, they weren’t the “good ones.” Hey, that’s what he told me. I’m just repeating it here.
But it appears the days of rejecting people in law enforcement, even people whose sartorial choice can be best described as “homeless Jesus” in a Megade
ath t-shirt, may be over, at least for the waning hours of the Obama administration.
In a push to hire minority police officers, the Obama administration is asking the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies to forgive drug use, disregard the criminal records of candidates from “underrepresented communities” and lower standards on written and physical exams. It’s part of the administration’s Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement initiative following a string of officer-involved shootings involving African Americans. Key to the mission is the racial diversification of local law enforcement agencies so that they “better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”
Not all ex-cons, but ex-cons of a color other than orange. White ex-cons are still shit out of luck, but then, ex-cons of color could use a job too, so let’s not get all equal protectionist about it. The purpose is one that many believe will improve relations between cops and the community, that racial diversification will smooth over the distrust if cops “better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”
There are black cops now. There are Hispanic cops now. Their bullets are just as deadly. Their batons hurt just as much. But the belief that police reflecting the community will change things is one that makes so much sense, even if it’s utter nonsense. It probably shouldn’t be, but experience is that there are no white people or black people in uniform. Just blue.
To accomplish this, several barriers must be removed and the details are outlined in a report issued jointly by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the nation’s workplace discrimination laws. The document aims to help carry out the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Chief among them is identifying barriers that undermine diversity in law enforcement in three key areas; recruitment, hiring and retention. To eliminate the largest barriers agencies are adopting a “holistic view” of applicants’ skills and strengths by, among other things, ignoring their criminal record. Here’s an excerpt from the report: “Certain barriers – including background investigations that treat all arrests and criminal convictions alike regardless of type of offense or how recent the occurrence, or even screen out those voluntarily admitting to drug use alone (without any conviction) – can prevent the agency from hiring the diverse officers it needs to connect with and serve the entire community.”
There is certainly concern that policing strategies like “stop and frisk” have created a generation of young black men who are saddled with insignificant convictions, marijuana possession, turnstyle jumping or possession of a gravity knife, which may or may not reflect any actual wrongdoing. Or maybe just pleas of convenience. Remember, cops had numbers to make and one black kid was as good as another for CompStat purposes.
But then, there were also people who committed real crimes. There were people who were violent and thought little of inflicting some pain if they wanted a gold chain or someone looked at them askance. There were people who were more familiar with guns than their circumstances warranted. There were people who couldn’t resist the desire to put stuff in their nose, or pipe or arm, and did some pretty awful things to get what they needed so badly.
To further discourage law enforcement agencies from eliminating candidates with criminal pasts, the report states that “an employer’s use of criminal background information can violate either the intentional or disparate impact provisions of Title VII, depending on how that information is used.” This refers to the section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The argument here is that a disproportionate number of minorities will be eliminated by criminal background checks. The administration concedes that legal challenges claiming that criminal background check policies have unlawful disparate impacts “have generally not been successful in court.” Credit history checks and psychological evaluations also present “discriminatory employment barriers to women and racial minority applicants,” the report states.
Will a rap sheet have a disparate impact on blacks? Of course it will. And no, it’s not because blacks are so much more criminal-ly, but because that’s where the cops hang when they want to make arrests, not to mention a ton of other, deep-seated, systemic reasons. Yet, the long-held alternative to racial animus, the disparate impact theory of discrimination, fits law enforcement about as well as O.J.’s glove.
It’s critically important that society reclaim the notion that people who have been convicted of a crime be given the opportunity to lead productive, law-abiding lives. The old adage, that they “paid their dues to society” after completing their sentence must be re-adopted, for if they can’t find work, become vested in society, the only alternative is recidivism. They need to eat. Their children need to eat. Starve a man and he will do desperate things.
But giving ex-cons a job, an opportunity, isn’t the same as giving them a gun and a shield, together with the authority to use them essentially at will. For some, the kid with the weed pop at 16, combined with the quickie plea to get home the next night, may well be a good candidate for law enforcement. But to wipe away conduct that reflects a potential to do harm to others, to engage in all manner of misconduct, may be a step way too far.
At a time when scrutiny of police abuse and misconduct is a huge issue, increased calls for integrity and de-escalation of violence can’t turn a blind eye to the reality that just because a person has dark skin and a robbery conviction doesn’t make him a great candidate for diversity. Steps in the right direction are great. A step too far, however, will just lead to more of the other problem we’re trying to eradicate. If we don’t want cops to be criminals, then we need to be circumspect about making criminals cops, no matter what their skin color.