Ore. police chief relaxes standards for new recruits

The chief is relaxing grooming standards and no college is required


Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Facing a critical staffing shortage, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw next month is relaxing hiring and grooming standards for the bureau: A high school diploma or GED certificate now will be sufficient. Tattoos above the collar and beards will be allowed.

The changes take effect July 1, the chief announced Wednesday.

The bureau has 128 officer vacancies and hasn’t been able to fill them as fast as veterans are retiring, with another large wave of retirements expected in August 2020.

“We will revisit the effectiveness of these changes after two years to determine if our hiring numbers have increased,” Outlaw said in a statement.

Times have changed and “what we look for in today’s police officer has evolved,” Outlaw said.

“Access to post-secondary education isn’t the same for everyone, as we know,” she said in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Removing any potential barriers for entry allows us to increase our selection pool and also allows us to become more competitive as an employer.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, supports the chief’s decision, said spokeswoman Eileen Park.

Past Portland police chiefs have grappled with the education standard for officers.

In 2001, former Chief Mark Kroeker lowered Portland’s four-year college degree requirement to the current standard: an associate degree or a minimum of 60 college credits, two years of active U.S. military duty, four years in the military reserves or two years of law enforcement experience at another agency. Former Chief Charles Moose set the four-year degree standard in 1996, arguing that the complexities of the job demanded more education.

When former Chief Rosie Sizer considered lowering the standard to a high school diploma or equivalency degree in 2007, she faced pushback from community members who attended her Chief’s Forum.

Then, some residents questioned the wisdom of lowering standards when the job demanded so many varied skills. And others didn’t like the suggestion that lowering the standards might improve diversity in hiring. But several supporters said life skills and street smarts are more important than a college education.

Outlaw said she’s choosing to align the bureau with state law enforcement standards for police certification.

The bureau will provide incentive pay to officers who pursue higher education and earn degrees. And as of July 1, applicants who hold college degrees or have experience at other police agencies will no longer have to take a National Testing Network exam. All others will have to pass the test within 60 days of being placed on the bureau’s hiring eligibility list.

Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, isn’t too sure that lowering the educational standard will help the bureau, considering what he calls anti-police sentiment among some city commissioners and outspoken community members that he believes drives applicants away.

"Right now, with our catastrophic staffing issues, I don’t know if the changes in the hiring standards will help with recruits,'' he said. "People who want to come here want to be able to do the job. Right now, in the city of Portland, our hands are tied. We can’t enforce some rules, but we can enforce others.''

Turner said the bureau needs applicants who are "well-qualified'' and able to pass the bureau’s background checks, keep a cool head and think quickly on their feet.

Lt. Craig Morgan, president of the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association, said, "On its face, the GED requirement is concerning, because we really value education. With that said, we recognize the troubles with hiring and appreciate the Bureau had to try something different.''

In 2007, when Sizer floated the idea of requiring only a high school diploma or equivalency degree, then-police union president Robert King -- who is now the mayor’s public safety adviser -- was adamantly opposed and noted studies that showed a correlation between education and officers’ professionalism. At the time, King said, “Any time you step away from education as a criteria, you put the organizational effectiveness at risk.''

King said Wednesday the bureau is facing a staffing crisis that he couldn’t have imagined back then and that the bureau is “taking proactive steps to increase the applicant pool to address the risks we face due to officers shortages.”

“This adjustment is consistent with standards all across our state,” King said. The bureau "will fill the vacant positions with excellent police officer candidates,'' he said.

Turner said he’s also unsure about allowing tattoos on the neck and face.

"The Police Bureau should mirror the community it serves. Would someone with tattoos above the collar be hired by Nike or Columbia or other big corporations?'' Turner asked. "When police have someone come to their front door, especially in their time of need, what do they expect to see? They might wonder if they’re getting the service they need.''

It’s not right to judge people based on their appearances, he said, but it’s impossible to get around "first impressions.''

Morgan said he had fewer concerns about the new tattoo policy. "Gotta change as social norms do,'' he said.

Officers currently can have tattoos below the collar, but they’re examined to ensure there’s nothing sexually explicit, racially or sexually biased or could be viewed as discriminatory, according to the bureau. The same reviews will apply to tattoos above the collar.

Allowing beards isn’t as controversial. The main constraint: Beards can’t interfere with the proper fit of any police equipment or gear.

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©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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