Dozens of Cops Will be Hired Before Overhaul

Dozens of Cops Will be Hired Before Overhaul
Posted by FoM on January 18, 2000 at 08:51:10 PT
By David Migoya, Denver Post Staff Writer 
Source: Denver Post 
The panel that helps determine who gets to wear a police badge in Denver has decided the system needs an overhaul, especially after the recent, controversial hiring of a police recruit.But whatever the Denver Civil Service Commission does in response to the saga of police recruit Ellis "Max" Johnson II, changes might not come before dozens more officers are hired under the current system.
"I can't believe we have to hire two or more academy classes from this list," Councilman Ted Hackworth said of the hiring list that included Johnson. "Why can't we move on to more eligible candidates?" The current hiring approach - criticized as too lenient and arbitrary - cleared the way for Johnson to be hired last year, even though he had an extensive drug history and admitted on forms to domestic violence and stealing from his employers.The system now allows recruits to flunk key tests and stay in contention, vault from the back of the class rankings to the front because of race or status as a veteran, and gives the five members of the commission the power to ignore damaging findings by its investigators.The system also allows a person such as Johnson to be rejected by the city's manager of safety and reappear as a higher-ranked contender in the next hiring wave."We've been working on (changes) for a long time, and it will modernize how the city hires its officers and firefighters," said Paul Torres, the commission's executive director. "Hopefully there will never be another question about who is best for the job." Changes are likely to come slowly, however. That's because many of the proposed reforms - expected to be ready by summer - will require either city council approval or voter approval of city charter amendments.Among the ideas being bantered are prohibitions on past drug use, a pretesting process that will remove chronic or possible troublemakers, an alteration in the way some exams are given and the lift ing of a federal court mandate that guarantees minority hiring."It's not a perfect system," Torres conceded, "but we're working on it. That's why the changes." Johnson, 40, a former psychologist, model, security guard and drug abuser who spent five years trying to get onto a police department, applied to be a Denver police officer on Oct. 28, 1998.Like the nearly 2,000 other hopefuls, Johnson filled out an application that queried his past: Job history, criminal history, drug use, special training, education.Johnson, according to commission officials, was more candid than most. Drug use from a year or more before applying to the commission is allowed, and Johnson admitted to last using narcotics in 1987. He still qualified for the next step, a written exam.Not everyone who qualifies for that step shows up. Commission records show about 1,300 people from the 2,000 applicants in his batch took the written exam.The written test deals with arithmetic, reading comprehension and incident report writing. If you pass, you make the next round.Johnson failed the written test twice before but this time passed. Some say it was because he had taken so many police department exams that he'd mastered them. Others say he passed because Johnson is a good police candidate.Now Johnson and 883 others who passed the written test could take the next exam - the oral board.There, three examiners - usually two police officers and a civilian - ask the same questions of each applicant. Of the 884 who qualified for the oral board, only 786 showed up, records show.Once an applicant passes the oral and written tests, which Johnson did, the commission begins an important function: Ranking the applicants by score.But the test scores aren't final. Extra points are added for a variety of reasons - such as having served in the armed forces - and increase an applicant's standing in the rankings.Johnson didn't get any additional points, records show, and he was ranked 99th out of the 786 people who took the written and oral tests. So 98 other people scored higher than he did.The commission then decides how many names it needs to fill open police jobs. In this case, the commission determined it needed a list of 100 names, so about 300 candidates were asked to continue.The next battery of exams are physical ability, psychological, background, polygraph, medical and drug screen.Although a candidate's psychological test results must be acceptable to the experts hired by the commission, failing doesn't necessarily mean they're rejected.In Johnson's case, he was given a psychological profile in November 1998 that ended with a recommendation that he not be hired and was sent a disqualification letter.But commission rules allow an applicant to seek a retest. Johnson was given a second psychological exam in January 1999.The results were the same - a rejection letter and an appeal. This time the commission decided to let Johnson pass through to the next battery of tests.The next step was the background investigation. The commission disregarded investigators' recommendation to ditch Johnson and approved him. That's because no one fails the background exam, per se. It's the commission's prerogative to decide whether a person passes or flunks the investigation.The final step is creating the eligibility roster, which is the list from which names are drawn and sent to Manager of Public Safety Butch Montoya for consideration.The job of putting names onto the list rests entirely with the commissioners. They review the file of every person who supposedly passed all the tests and decide, in a closed-door vote, who makes it. The vote on Johnson was 3-2.Although Johnson ranked 99th, some applicants earlier had failed one of the tests and were dismissed from further testing. That put Johnson 39th on the list of 100 names that the commission created in March 1999.Johnson was finally on the Denver police hiring list, a feat he hadn't accomplished in three previous tries over five years.Here's where the process becomes complex again. Johnson may have been 39th on the list, but his was one of the first names given to Montoya for consideration. Here's why:While the commission is supposed to give the manager the names of eligible candidates in ranking order, preferential-hiring rules allow for minorities to leapfrog non-minorities, no matter how far the jump. In one case, two Asian applicants who were ranked 556 and 566 were elevated over hundreds of others to make the list, records show.That's because a 1975 lawsuit is used to ensure the department's racial makeup is on par with the rest of city government. Although the commission satisfied that quota in 1996, the city has never petitioned the federal court to do away with the requirement, City Attorney Dan Muse said."All I want to know is why we're still working under a court order when we don't have to," Councilman Hackworth said. "Let's just hire the best candidates, period." With minority candidates in place, Montoya gets the list of names, and it's his decision who gets hired and who doesn't.Without cause, Montoya can strike anyone's name from the list he gets and ask the commission for a replacement name.Because he is African-American, the 1975 lawsuit requirements allowed Johnson to jump from 39th to 24th - over 15 other candidates - to make the first list of names sent to Montoya.But that didn't matter, records show. Montoya vetoed Johnson from the list. The next AfricanAmerican on the list, who ranked behind Johnson, was hired instead, records show.Why Montoya tossed Johnson from the April 1999 list is unknown because he has refused to comment on the matter.Six months later, in October 1999, when the next wave of hiring occurred, Johnson was 12th on a list of 25 names the commission sent to Montoya.This time, Montoya accepted Johnson. He had finally made the police academy.Whether that could have, should have or would have been prevented with reforms is conjecture. Protecting the integrity of police hires seems to be the goal. But ideas vary.Councilman Ed Thomas has drafted a resolution to change the current one-year drug-free requirement to three years, following tighter restrictions of suburban departments. That means Johnson still would have made it to the testing despite his prior history of drug abuse.The commission wants rules on prior drug use to change, too. The new process is expected to include prescreening of candidates' applications and the weeding out of undesirables before they are allowed to take a test, Torres said."It will save us a lot of work," he said, "and a lot of wasted time testing people who won't make it through the background investigation." The commission is considering the addition of a second oral board, to be conducted by the commissioners themselves."It would make better sense for them to know who it is they're voting on and have a better sense of the applicants," Torres said.That's all fine and good for Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, who recently told the commission it was focusing on the wrong things."You're talking about processes, and there's nothing about standards," Martinez said.Commissioner Ellen Reath later agreed: "It's just not something that ever came up." David Migoya can be reached at 303-820-1506 or via email at: dmigoya denverpost.comPublished: January 18, 2000Copyright 1999-2000 The Denver Post.Related Articles:Fight Over Hiring Cops Who Once Used Drugs - 1/12/2000 Problems Plague Cop Recruits - 1/09/2000 Cop Busted Over Date Rape Drugs - 1/06/2000 
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