Career in Law Enforcement

Archived Responses: 


Studying Criminal Justice in college - what about past drug use?

July 2008

My son recently returned to college to pursue a career in Criminal Justice. His concern is that he will obtain a degree in this field and be unable to get a job due to past drug use. He has no criminal record and has passed numerous background checks for other jobs. However, he is afraid that he will be unable to pass a polygraph test due to questions regarding his drug use many years ago. I would appreciate feedback from anyone with experience in this field. It's hard for me to believe that everyone entering this field has a squeaky clean background with no drug use. He is interested in work including probation officer, juvenile justice social worker, border patrol, maybe even with the FBI. anon

From what I know, and what has been previously posted on BPN, any admission of drug use, no matter how minimal or far in the past will adversely effect your son's ability to get a job in law enforcement. I understand that local police departments can be the most harsh in these cases. Although I don't usually recommend lying, in this case, I would. Anon
Dick Cavett in his May 9, 2008 New York Times column wrote an insightful article on ''how I beat the polygraph'' which hits your son's concerns dead-on:

In short, the polygraph is not a reliable instrument for differentiating lies and truth, and hence is not admissible as evidence in court, but it is useful to law enforcement because people *believe* it to be accurate and babble in fear when told they have ''failed'' it -- even if they have not. In short, ''Who is the liar?'' is even more important than ''Did I lie?'' when one cannot independently evaluate the results. This is a reasonable consideration on your son's part.

Cavett also explains how he ''beat'' the polygraph when given one on his show many years ago. There are many reader comments, including from experts and attorneys, that provide personal insight as to why this device is still used, the underlying expectations, the intentionally ''flawed'' questions which create the illusion of stress (i.e. ''Did you ever lie about anything important?''),and the methodology used to determine ''truth'' from ''lie''.

Your son should read Cavett's observations and reader comments to gain some perspective on this ''test''. He should also understand that nobody in criminal justice or anywhere else is perfect and that we all have items in our past of which we are ashamed (like stealing apples from the neighbor's tree or breaking your sister's toy). Feeling ashamed means he has a conscience and feels remorse for doing things that hurt others or himself. Only a sociopath or criminal feels no remorse for acting badly.

The purpose of polygraphs is actually to reveal sociopaths and criminals by getting them to talk - it is not intended to embarrass a job applicant with youthful indiscretions or foolish acts. If he's asked about past drug use, he should be honest (even Presidential candidates openly admit to drug use nowadays, and California's current Governor was renowned for his drug and, er, other experimentation in his bodybuilding career). But just like in the ''Wizard of Oz'', it's the man behind the curtain (or operating the polygraph) that he should be aware of and not just the fancy techno wonder of the moment on the desk. People set up the test and interpret the results - sometimes before the subject even sits down - and people are not always right. Lynne

Joining the Police Force - effects on the family?

May 2008

Are there any wives/mothers out there with husbands on the police force - particularly BPD? My husband is wanting a career shift from his current job of 10 years. I want to fully support his interest in joining the police department but I have some serious reservations that are holding me back - which he understands. Our young child is my main concern and I want her to have a father who is present in her life both physically and mentally. Any experience (shift schedules, rough nights, the academy, etc.) both positive and negative would be helpful in us making a decision for our family would be appreciated. Concerned New Mama

I am a DA. I don't have family members who are in the police force but have been a several ride alongs; and working closely with police officers. So I'm hoping to give you a little bit of insight into that career. Frankly, I think it's good. And come to think of it, we who work in law enforcement (police, lawyers) are all exposed to a certain level of risk in our professions. (For ex, stories about court room violence...) I think if your husband wants to establish a law enforcement career, he should go for it. The salary and benefits are pretty good; overtime is awesome; he can work some long hours; and then to take off the rest of the week. I know of some CHP officers who work night shift and have to testify the next day at 9:00 a.m. That could be very hard just because of the sleep deprivation. However, that doesn't happen too often and the supervisor will not put his troop back on the street given that schedule. As to the danger, everybody just has to be crime smart right? anon
I am a police wife; my husband does not work for BPD but another local agency. We have two kids, now ages 4 and 2. My husband started the academy about 4 years ago. He was around 30 years old at the time. All I can say is that it is not easy.

You mentioned having your husband present in your daughter's life physically. I'm not sure if you are concerned about your husband working an odd schedule or the possibility of him being injured in the line of duty.

-Regarding the odd schedules: Yes, they can suck. They can really suck. Your friends are inviting you over for dinner on their weekend while your husband is asleep and in the middle of his work week.

-Regarding injuries: Officers spend a lot of time training and learning and thinking to minimize the risk of injury. And unless your husband has a major ''death wish'' ... he wants to come home to you just as safe and sound as he left you!

One thing about Berkeley is that the police department is really constrained by politics. As the wife of a police officer (although again, not at BPD), I desperately wish it weren't true. Any officer who puts his life on the line, day after day, to keep some semblance of safety for his/her city yet is constrained and in some cases prevented from actually carrying out the enforcement of the law ... well, that scares me. I could go on and on, but you didn't really ask about this.

Something that has happened in our family is that my husband wants to live as far away as possible from the jurisdiction where he works. This is frustrating to me (since we currently live near where he works) because for now he is ultra-paranoid: won't take our kids to the park, won't go on walks around home, etc. I understand intellectually that he doesn't want to run into someone he's arrested while hanging out with his family and have something bad happen to us but it doesn't make it any easier.

I really have turned into a one-woman show for our family. A lot of that could be my husband's personality but I know a lot of it has to do with how demanding and draining a job in law enforcement can be. Would you like to spend 40, 50, or 60 hours a week always looking over your shoulder, waiting for someone to attack you? This profession is one that has the highest percentage of divorce, suicide, and drug/alcohol abuse because of the constant high levels of stress. I can see why. ''They'' (whoever they are) say that the level of divorce is higher amoung couples where one partner becomes a police officer *after* the start of the relationship. This is because being in law enforcement can really change a person.

There is really no quick answer and I'm trying to give little soundbite answers to your post and I'm afraid not doing it justice. (It's also very late!) A few suggestions:

-Pick up the book ''I Love A Cop'' by Ellen B Kirschman. I read this book after my husband had graduated and been on the streets for a while. I LOVED IT. Our situation is not quite to the extreme sometimes pictured in the book, so If you do read it know that it isn't always as extreme.

-Have your husband go on some ride-alongs at agencies where he might like to work. Don't limit it to just one agency! It is a good chance to get a behind-the-scenes and in-the-trenches look at the job.

-YOU should go on a ride-along! It will give you insight into the job, too

-Feel free to email me if you have other questions or just want to ''wonder'' about things. This is a very specialized job that most people don't understand (and friends REALLY don't understand) that it's nice to have someone who does. mss

Husband dreams of being a police officer but can't pass the background check

April 2008

My husband dreams of becoming a police officer and has passed all of the tests at OPD, BPD, and SFPD, landing in the top percentage of applicants. OPD and SFPD have told him that he will not pass the background test, so he's being withdrawn from consideration. He's lived an exemplary life, including having his own business, having experience teaching in Juvenile Hall, lots of volunteer work. He has never been in any trouble, legal or otherwise. He has great references, including the officers who have taken him on ride-alongs. We're waiting to hear back from the investigator about the reasons. We've been told that some reasons can be ''fixed'' and some cannot. We are 99% sure that he is being rejected because he did mushrooms this past summer with some friends (one isolated incident since he was in college, which was 15 years ago). A friend, who is an officer in OPD, told him that he should have lied about it, but my husband was honest when asked about drug use in his background questionnaires. What I'd like to know is if anyone in BPNville is familiar with police hiring practices. If he can regain eligibility, how long does he need to wait? Is one isolated drug use enough to bar him from being hired forever? I'd love to hear from anyone who has experience either as an applicant or a member of the police force. Thanks!

I cannot speak to the police hiring particulars, but my husband is in a line of work where backgrounds also are heavily scrutinized. He pees in cups a lot (scheduled and random). He gets physicals every six months. He can't get a DUI or his livelihood (and our house) are gone forever. Also, for his part-time job, his friends, family, neighbors and enemies are interviewed about his habits. His finances are looked at...For him, it isn't really a big deal. If he had used drugs or gotten a DUI when he was in college (he didn't in either case), he may still have been hired in his field fifteen years later. If he did drugs or got a DUI last summer and then tried to get hired in his field? No. Background checkers would question his judgment. Putting a person with questionable judgment in his position would endanger too many lives. Ditto for handing a person with questionable judgment a gun and a uniform.

As an aside, you can't say that your husband has never been in any can only say that he hasn't been caught. He has in fact -- by your own admission -- broken the law on several occasions, at least once as a real, full blown adult serving as a role model to juvenile offenders. -anon

I checked with my contacts at OPD and this is what they say: Possession of Mushrooms is a felony, however we will not hold it against anyone if the usage was many years ago and experimentation. In this situation the usage was very recent (last summer). This not only an issue with the drug usage, it's a matter of judgment. This is an issue police department must ponder when making a decision to hire the best police officers for the job. Believe it or not jobs are limited and there is a lot of competition.
I spoke with a friend who is an officer on BPD. He said that experimental drug use as a teenager could possibly be overlooked, especially if the applicant grew up locally, but that adult drug use would probably cause an application to be rejected. My friend said that there are particular qualities that can help move an applicant along (bilingual, multicultural, counseling background) because they are in demand on the force, and these things may enable the department to accept an applicant despite past drug use. Hope this is helpful, sorry not more positive! --Friend of the Force