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Proposal would loosen police hiring rules on prescription drug use

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published January 6, 2016

A proposed change to Alaska's police hiring standards that would, under certain circumstances, allow the use of a prescription drug not prescribed to a hopeful officer could mean fewer applications rejected.

Currently, if an applicant to an Alaska law enforcement agency uses a prescription drug they didn't obtain through a doctor, the result is immediate disqualification from consideration for a law enforcement job for 10 years. The new standard, as it's being proposed by the Alaska Police Standards Council, would permit the use if "an exigent circumstance existed to justify the use of a controlled substance not specifically prescribed to a person," and would only extend back five years.

"The council's logic was there are situations in a person's life where they get injured or hurt and they have access to a spouse's or a friend's pain medications, and they take it. Eight years later, they apply for a police position, or a corrections position, and they've been excluded because of that," said APSC Executive Director Bob Griffiths.

Public safety officials want more discretion when considering the past use of drugs by candidates, Griffiths said.

Currently, marijuana is the only controlled substance that wouldn't exclude a potential candidate from consideration if they'd used it in the 10 years before applying.

The drug issue and other proposals by APSC involve changes to Title 13 of the Alaska Administrative Code. Among the proposed changes are requiring departments to notify the council of alleged misconduct by an officer if the conduct may be cause for revoking police certification and requiring applicants pass a psychological exam before being hired.

Establishing the standards includes a public comment period, which is underway. The council has the final say on what standards are put in place.

‘Common-sense approach’

Griffiths said the council heard from departments about a large number of good, otherwise qualified applicants who didn't make the cut because they popped a painkiller when they shouldn't have.

The Anchorage Police Department and Alaska State Troopers -- the two largest law enforcement agencies in the state -- both turned down potential officers who admitted to using a controlled substance in the last 10 years. The chief of the Nome Police Department said it's happened there too, even though their applicant pool is much smaller.

Many people may not realize that taking an Oxycodone left over from a spouse's root canal in an attempt to ease the pain from a rolled ankle or aching back constitutes felony behavior, said Lt. James Helgoe, who deals with recruitment. The proliferation of prescription drugs likely aided in the misunderstanding, he said.

"This proposal would be a step in the right direction," he said. "If a person's only done it once, we ... think there needs to be some relief to this problem, or a more common-sense approach."

Nome Police Chief John Papasodora said there is nothing in the current regulations that allows for the review of prescription drug use.

"It's very black and white right now," he said. The potential change "gives us the ability to review those kinds of events to determine if they're exigent and fit within the regulation. A person may deserve additional consideration."

Anchorage Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Castro was told by her department's background and recruitment unit that people are turned down every application period because they used prescription drugs.

APD isn't convinced a change to regulations would affect its pool of eligible applicants, she said.

"We don't come across this situation as much, where someone needs medical attention and they didn't have the ability to do so," Castro said. "If you have the ability to get proper health care, we wouldn't consider that an exigent circumstance."

The police department is more optimistic about the question surrounding such use being confined to the previous five years, rather than 10 years, Castro said.

Reporting police misconduct

Another change in the works would require departments to notify APSC of an officer's alleged misconduct. Griffiths said the misconduct would apply to activities already listed in the regulations that would disqualify an officer from service: things like lying, theft and domestic violence.

The proposal is the council's attempt to strengthen existing regulations that currently only require police departments to inform the council if an officer resigns or gets fired.

Griffiths said demanding every allegation make its way to the council isn't realistic. There will likely be an addition to the proposal's language stating notification would need to happen "30 days after an allegation is sustained," he said.

"We want to give them time to investigate the allegations," Griffiths said.