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Derek Chauvin proves America is still hiring the exact wrong people to be cops

We know we need police reform. But how do we prevent bad cops from being hired in the first place?
Image: A protest art piece created by Visual Black Justice outside of the Hennepin County Government Center before jury selection begins in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on March 8, 2021.
Derek Chauvin's trial reminds us about the work still to be done to reform the police.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

Two events are converging this week that could prompt renewed hopes to change both police conduct and who gets to join those agencies.

Are we doing enough to prevent the next Derek Chauvin?

On Feb. 24, the House passed a police reform bill called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill, a policing overhaul named for George Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man who died last Memorial Day after Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes, passed 220 to 212, mostly along party lines.

Chauvin's trial is set to begin this week, despite some setbacks, on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Passage of the bill, along with the start of Chauvin’s trial, raises a question: Are we doing enough to prevent the next Derek Chauvin?

The House bill would ban chokeholds, prevent racial and religious profiling, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain "no-knock" warrants. It includes several provisions that would make it easier to hold officers accountable for misconduct in civil and criminal courts.

One proposal long sought by civil rights advocates would alter “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits by lowering the bar for plaintiffs to sue for civil rights violations. Though not yet passed in the Senate, the bill is an important step toward addressing police misconduct. But it’s virtually silent on the issue of recruitment — who gets to become a cop in the first place.

A ban on chokeholds might reduce inadvertent or even deliberate deaths of suspects taken into custody; that’s good. A proposed national database would track findings of officer misconduct so bad cops might be less likely to laterally transfer to other departments; that’s also good. Yet, the measures in the bill seem to be a hedge against a presumed status quo: that we’ll continue to have police officers who should never have been hired in the first place.

The measures in the bill seem to be a hedge against a presumed status quo: that we’ll continue to have police officers who should never have been hired in the first place.

While it’s essential, and understandable, for Congress to address the present-day realities of police forces, departments must also take responsibility for whom they let in the door. That means police recruiting needs to change.

First, police departments must consciously cultivate candidates who are more likely to be the kind of cops a community needs. A guide published by the National Center for Women and Policing notes: “Some law enforcement agencies have failed to redefine skills, experience, and background qualifications they are seeking in law enforcement officers to reflect contemporary community policing values. This has seriously compromised recruiting and hiring practices in those agencies. In other words, law enforcement agencies are frequently looking for the ‘wrong’ type of person in the ‘wrong’ types of places.”

It further states, “To date, there are a number of studies demonstrating that female officers utilize a less authoritarian style of policing that relies less on physical force — despite research showing women respond to similar calls and encounter similar dangers on duty and are as effective as their male counterparts in performing police duties.” It also concludes, “It is clear that women are significantly less likely to be involved in employing both deadly force and excessive force.”

Just as policing should be community-based, so should candidate interview panels and selection committees.

In an article about the hiring practices of the Boston Police Department, reporter Bill Walczak wrote in the Dorchester Reporter in July: “The ability of police officers to be successful in ensuring peace and safety depends on characteristics like judgment, empathy, being unbiased, and able to handle people in crisis. Indeed, much of policing is about dealing with behavioral issues like drug/alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicidal ideation, and violent tendencies, so you might assume that rank in the ‘eligible’ list would include a higher position for those who are social workers or from a human service background. But you would be wrong.”

Boston's department, like most others, determines eligibility ranking by emphasizing military veteran status. Veterans go to the top of the list. Veteran preference honors the service of our troops — but should it be one of the defining factors in selecting cops?

Walczak cited a 2017 study by the Marshall Project and USA Today that noted that veteran preference makes it more difficult to hire women and minorities on police forces. The study includes census data showing more than 90 percent of Massachusetts veterans are “non-Hispanic White” and 95 percent are male. The most favored status for veterans also makes it difficult to hire staff competent in dealing with behavioral issues.

Vetting processes must be redesigned to proactively identify and weed out those who are more likely to default to hate-based violence or anti-government extremist violence.

In the study, former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole noted that veteran preference makes it hard to change the police culture, saying: “I want to attract people with very different skill sets. We are facing complicated issues with people who are in crisis every day. Why wouldn’t I want people who majored in human services? Or psychology or sociology?”

The Marshall Project report also noted that “in Boston, for every 100 cops with some military service, there were more than 28 complaints of excessive force from 2010 to 2015. For every 100 cops with no military service, there were fewer than 17 complaints.”

Not far from Boston, another department has been putting in an effort to conduct smarter recruitment. A 2016 report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department noted that in Worcester, Massachusetts, the police department takes a community outreach approach to recruitment, specifically targeting communities that have been historically underrepresented in the police force, including "religious and faith-based organizations, local colleges, veterans, and minority-owned businesses, and community-based social service agencies."

These efforts appear to work: In 2015, the department reported that "out of all men who took the civil service exam, 37 percent were men of color; out of all women who took the exam, 56 percent were women of color." The report highlights a number of other police department recruitment initiatives, from Miami-Dade, Florida, to Madison, Wisconsin.

Second, just as policing should be community-based, so should candidate interview panels and selection committees. The Women and Policing guide recommends that police candidate interview panels include representatives from organizations and businesses that primarily serve minorities and women. The EEOC points to some departments like Minnesota's St. Paul Police Department, which created an interview panel that included such community members.

Third, candidate vetting processes must be redesigned to proactively identify and weed out those who are more likely to default to hate-based violence or anti-government extremist violence. Social media analysis should be a part of each background investigation. At a minimum, candidates should be required to demonstrate tangible evidence in their lives of real engagement with an understanding of diverse cultures, ethnicities and races.

One nascent and promising initiative involves two polygraph exams designed by an organization founded by former FBI polygraph examiners called Justice Is Equal. These tests are intended to be added to existing pre-employment tests currently used by police agencies.

One of the tests helps determine whether applicants harbor prejudices or biases against several legally recognized protected classes and, if so, whether they have committed acts based on those biases. The second test is designed to identify recruits affiliated with white supremacists, violent extremists or anti-government groups. Art Acevedo, the Houston police chief, recently announced that he will expand that department's polygraph testing to include anti-government views.

The next Derek Chauvin is applying now to a police department near you. Urge your city council, police commission and state legislature to establish and support a reimagining of recruitment practices and initiatives — before the next unarmed Black person dies as a result of police conduct.