70 percent of applicants fail Las Vegas police entrance exam

By Kevin Johnson

LAS VEGAS Kayvan Kazemi spent the night before his police entrance exam studying the gambling tables.

The 24-year-old Long Island, N.Y., officer candidate lost about $400 in the casinos before calling it a night. But nothing he did violated the law or disqualified him for a spot in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department academy. It was just a typical night in Vegas, where Kazemi is still in the running for a job. And Lt. Charles Hank, the department's personnel chief, says there are worse examples of pre-test preparation.

Much worse.

Of the finalists for the 400 available jobs this year, a staggering 70% are expected to fail the required background and polygraph examinations for attempting to conceal a range of criminal activities, from prostitution to fraud and drug use.

If the recruiting effort were a one-year campaign, the washout rate might be a lesser concern. But Vegas plans to hire at least 400 officers every year for the next five years to keep pace with the region's explosive growth. And Vegas' experience is not unlike that of a number of departments nationwide.

War siphons pool of recruits

In Phoenix, where recruiters are in their own long-term hiring campaign, more than a third of the applicants are failing polygraph examinations. In Orlando, about half are not surviving critical pre-polygraph interviews.

One of the Orlando candidates flew in for an interview earlier this year and was dismissed after listing two fraudulent college degrees that the candidate had purchased online, said Sgt. Christine Gigicos, Orlando's recruiting unit director.

"As much as we tell 'em not to lie, they come in here and lie, and they think we're not going to find out. Maybe they forget: We are the police," Vegas police Sgt. Dan Zehnder said.

The last time police officials were voicing such concern about the quality of recruits was seven years ago, when the federal government began phasing out the landmark police hiring program aimed at adding 100,000 to the ranks across the country.

Now, a protracted war is siphoning away scores of traditional recruits, forcing departments to cast a wider net to fill thousands of jobs. Many of the jobs have been created in response to rapid community growth and the steady retirements of hundreds of baby-boomer officers but many are citing the war as having exacted a particularly heavy toll in the police ranks. Last year, an analysis of Justice Department data found that the deployment of thousands of local officers to Iraq and Afghanistan as military reservists was outstripping the pace of hires.

The analysis found that 11,380 officers were called for military Reserve service in 2003, compared with 2,600 new hires. Since that report was published, Justice statistician Matthew Hickman said anecdotal evidence suggests that departments are "having a lot of trouble" with both recruitment and retention.

Jeremy Wilson, associate director of the RAND Center on Quality Policing, says the national law enforcement hiring market is caught in its own "perfect storm" stoked by intense competition for a shrinking universe of applicants even as departments have relaunched aggressive recruiting campaigns.

Vegas police recruiters were all smiles when a record 647 officer candidates streamed into a cavernous convention center July 10 to sit for the first in a day-long battery of entrance exams.

Nearly 150 applicants had come from as far as Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Iowa and Michigan to fill the hundreds of available slots.

Zehnder, a department training instructor, offered a sobering dose of reality. For every 100 candidates, maybe 10 will eventually make it through the training academy and then to the street.

About 23% of candidates never get past a multiple-choice basic knowledge test. Forty percent fail the physical training workout a mix of calisthenics, agility and running drills. But no other test comes close to producing the failure rate seven in 10 than the department's background check and polygraph exam.

"I can't tell you how many candidates I've lost," recruiting officer Luke Jancsek said of those applicants caught lying. Many, he said, try to conceal the frequency of past drug use, some of which would not necessarily disqualify them. "I want to smack 'em in the head sometimes."

At an applicant reception on the night before the July 10 test day, recruiting officers urged a gathering of about 100 candidates to come forward if they thought past conduct might bar them from law enforcement. When the meeting was over, a handful of candidates grudgingly acknowledged a range of criminal activity in private meetings with recruiters.

Hank said one acknowledged paying for sex "just a few months ago" at a bachelor party. Another candidate from the East Coast, who had flown in at his own expense, also admitted to paying a prostitute. Both were encouraged to look elsewhere for work.

Most of the private meetings, however, involved questions about prior drug use.

If there was good news in the eleventh-hour confessions, it was that they came before the start of the lengthy and costly testing and training process. Candidates begin drawing a $47,777 annual salary while they are attending the 23-week academy.

Employing tourist-trap tactics

Given the high disqualification rate and the department's enormous expansion plans, Sgt. Eric Fricker said the department must maintain the current pace of attracting about 600 applicants a month.

To keep those numbers up, the department is using the same kinds of tactics the city has used to attract 40 million tourists and 50,000 new residents each year.

In the department's recruiting trips to the Midwest, the department emphasizes the warm, dry climate and surging economy.

A big part of the department's hiring campaign is being managed by the same marketing company that developed the city's signature motto: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

Fricker is unapologetic about using the city's natural lures and vices to keep candidates coming. "It's Vegas," he said.

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY

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