Ex-dope users can become NOPD cops under new rule

Past use no longer forces out applicant

Past illegal drug use will no longer disqualify those seeking to become New Orleans police officers under a policy change approved Monday by the city’s Civil Service Commission in an effort to attract a wider pool of applicants to a rapidly thinning blue line.

The loosening of a longtime requirement that officer candidates must claim a life free of illicit drug use — including crack cocaine, LSD and heroin — mirrors a shift adopted nearly seven years ago by the FBI. Other police agencies, from Miami to Las Vegas, have adopted similar changes aimed at forgiving the indiscretions of youth.

Under the change, drug use is no longer an automatic disqualifier if the applicant has not used most narcotics in the past 10 years. For marijuana and illegal use of prescription pills, the policy remains the same, with applicants required to be drug-free for two years.

The standard for marijuana and misuse of pills is three years for officers applying from other law enforcement agencies. That’s how long they need to have served in uniform to make a “lateral” jump, averting the NOPD’s college-education requirement and the full police academy course that new hires must complete. The rationale, Serpas said, is that the department doesn’t want cops who have smoked pot or misused pills on the job.

The marijuana and pill policies are looser than the FBI’s.

“We are recognizing the field and the market is changing. We recognize that some otherwise qualified applicants may have used some drugs in the past,” Serpas told the commission Monday.

“All this means is that before this requirement (change), if you said you’d ever used illegal drugs in your lifetime — LSD, heroin, crack — you were eliminated at the door,” Serpas said. “(Now) if you say it happened more than 10 years ago, we’ll just take you into the background (check). It doesn’t mean you’re going to be hired.”

All would-be officer hires must undergo a voice stress test to determine if they’re telling the truth.

The change in the drug policy was among several changes approved Monday that are designed to corral a bigger herd of solid candidates for a department that has embarked on an ambitious recruiting push after a yearslong hiring freeze.

So far, though, the city has fielded just one of the five police academy classes it was hoping to hire this year. Although an online application process that started in November has reaped about 1,500 applicants, Serpas said, it has resulted in few hires, even as the number of NOPD officers now sits below 1,150. That’s about 425 officers short of the goal Serpas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu have set.

The City Council signaled its concern over the depleted police force in April by scrapping a requirement that new police officers, firefighters and other first responders live in the city.

Aside from relaxing the drug policy, the Civil Service Commission also agreed Monday to broaden an exception from the required 60 hours of college credit for applicants with military experience. In addition to former active-duty troops, the exemption now includes those who have served four years in the National Guard or Reserve.

“We feel comfortable that a four-year National Guard service is similar enough to an active-duty service,” Serpas said.

Also now exempt from the education requirement are applicants who have two years of patrol or investigative law enforcement experience in the field.

Another rule change will help officers from other states who don’t possess the specific training certification required in New Orleans.

Amy Trepagnier, who heads the Civil Service Department’s recruitment section, said the staff received Serpas’ proposed changes only last week and wanted to study the National Guard exemption and others to see what other police forces do.

The commission went ahead with the changes just the same.

Donovan Livaccari, an attorney with the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said the organization supports the changes, but he cautioned that the city shouldn’t backslide on high standards for new officers.

Livaccari pointed to the 1990s, when standards slackened and officers such as Antoinette Frank and Len Davis — both since convicted of murder and sent to death row — slid through the cracks.

The FOP’s support comes “with a stern warning that we really have to be extraordinarily careful about lowering the standards, only because we’ve been down this road before. It was disastrous,” Livaccari said.

Eric Hessler, an attorney with the Police Association of New Orleans, also lodged support for the changes.

Serpas made clear that one employment requirement will remain the same: Former drug dealers need not apply.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.