By Raisa Habersham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
March 22, 2019
In an effort to increase recruits, the Atlanta Police Department decided it will no longer ask potential hires about past marijuana usage — an issue that has kept potentially well-qualified candidates from being hired.
“I was really concerned we were losing applicants to marijuana usage,” Atlanta police chief Erika Shields said. “As an employer, it’s a really difficult space to find yourself in.”
Shields said about 60 percent of potential Atlanta Police hires were removed from the application process due to past marijuana usage.
The changes in the department’s recruitment policy reflect the same changes in how society views people who have ever smoked pot: It’s no longer a deal-breaker. With recreational use of marijuana now legal in 10 states and Washington, D.C., that slow acceptance is also being recognized by other law departments in Georgia and nationally.
“Over the years it has certainly changed,” Georgia P.O.S.T Executive Deputy Director Ryan Powell said. “Thirty years ago no prior use of marijuana was permitted.” The Georgia Peace Officer Standards Training Council trains law enforcement officers.
Powell said while all the state’s police agencies prohibit current use of marijuana, many will accept applicants who smoked pot in the past, providing they have not used it within have a period of two to three years prior to their application. The Georgia P.O.S.T. does not track the number of agencies who ask applicants about their past marijuana use.
Atlanta’s application change was done in an effort to increase recruits for police officer jobs.
“People were coming to us who were otherwise qualified,” Shields said. “They may be smoking pot legally (in other states) but were getting knocked out of the application process.”
The Atlanta Police Department has long advertised 2,000 officers as the number of officers it needs to be fully staffed. But for years the department has fallen short of that number. It’s currently short about 350 officers, Shields.
“Hopefully we’ll see (the application change) offset some of the numbers,” Shields said.
While Atlanta has not said how many officers were hired in the past year, Shields said there has been an increase in applicants compared to last year. So far, Atlanta police have received 1,008 applications compared with 668 at this time last year. The department has not said if that increase can be attributed to eliminating the question of marijuana use.
With the policy change, Atlanta’s application for potential police hires no longer includes a question about marijuana use. The form asks if they’ve ever used illegal drugs and to specify which drugs, but marijuana was removed from that list in mid-January, police officials said.
Once applicants accept a job offer, they must sign a waiver agreeing any future marijuana usage would lead to their firing. They are subject to random drug testing as part of their job.
“We acted based on what we believed was right for our department and are comfortable leading in this space,” Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said in an emailed statement. “Every police department has to choose what is right for them.”
Frank Vincent Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said about five years ago a few agencies began lessening their restrictions around marijuana as difficulties with hiring persisted.
“Law enforcement is suffering from people who don’t want the job in these turbulent times so they’re working short-staffed,” Rotondo said.
But Rotondo said it’s unlikely Atlanta’s changes will trickle to smaller, more conservative departments that still frown on marijuana usage. Not all metro Atlanta police departments are following in Atlanta’s steps. DeKalb and Gwinnett counties still ask applicants about past use. In DeKalb, officers are denied consideration for employment if they’ve used marijuana within the past 12 months.
Shields is not an advocate of marijuana use but said she must be practical. With 64 percent of Atlanta Police Department’s recruits between the ages of 20 and 29, she said it’s likely “they don’t think (marijuana) is a drug.”
“Times have changed,” she said. “I believe as leaders we have to change with it, particularly if we have to hire these folks.”