With police departments facing a hiring crisis, some policies are being loosened to find more cadets


PHILADELPHIA — Faced with gaping vacancies in its police force and concerns about public safety, the Philadelphia Police Department had to think creatively about how to get more candidates in the door. The answer? Fewer pushups.

The city’s move to lower requirements for the entry physical exam at its police academy is part of a broader effort nationally to reevaluate policies that keep law enforcement applicants out of the job pool amid a hiring crisis.

To close the gap, policies on tattoos, previous drug use, physical fitness and college credits are all being reconsidered. Los Angeles is offering housing subsidies. Other departments, like Washington, D.C., are offering signing bonuses of more than $20,000. Several states have expanded eligibility to noncitizens, while others have changed the minimum age of officers to 18.

A law signed by Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro at the end of last year lowered the physical fitness requirements applicants are assessed on — from situps to timed distance running and pushups — in Philadelphia. The city, buffeted with high crime rates like other big cities during the early pandemic, has struggled to fill vacancies in its police department.

Under the new law, candidates can pass their exam at a lower threshold than previously required, now in the 15th percentile of the standards the force uses to test its cadets. Depending on your age and sex, it’s the difference of about three to five situps or pushups, or a few minutes added to the 1.5-mile run.

Philadelphia is already seeing the payoff of its amended fitness entry exam. Since the law took effect, 51% of people testing have passed, compared with 36% previously, said Capt. John Walker, who handles recruitment for the department.

Cadets still need to graduate by passing the current standard of being in the 30th percentile, but over the nine months of training, it gives candidates time to grow, Walker said.

“Getting them in at a reasonable, logical number, gets us more people and better opportunities,” he said.

Megan Bortner was one of the 100 out of 265 candidates who passed their exams during a recruitment event in February. She’s moving to the city after four years as an officer in Indiana, where she completed the same physical fitness exam as everyone else, regardless of gender and age.

Applying for Philadelphia’s force, Bortner, who is 33, had to complete the 1.5-mile run in under 20 minutes to pass the exam under the new entry standards. Previously, she would have had to do it in roughly 17 minutes. She thinks the lower threshold for entry helps more recruits have a chance at becoming officers, meaning a more diverse pool working in the community.

“If you’re having self-doubts or you’re not feeling as confident in your athletic abilities, I think this would be a great starting point,” Bortner said.

Concerns about crime and public safety have been top of mind for Philadelphians. It was a leading factor in the recent mayoral election, with voters choosing Democratic candidate Cherelle Parker, who vowed to be tough on crime and is pushing to hire hundreds more officers to walk the beat.

The hope is to get more recruits hired to plug about 836 vacancies the department faces in its 6,000-officer force. Combined with around 470 officers who aren’t able to be on street duty due to injuries, the department is well below the staffing levels it has the budget for.

When evaluating their policies to try to bring on more cadets, officers saw the impact a graduation-level physical fitness exam had. In 2024, they hope to hire a minimum of 350 recruits — a 167% increase in personnel hired.

“We service a big demographic of people. Bringing people in from all those demographics, I think, is critical,” Walker said. “By looking at these barriers to entry, teaching people there are opportunities and listening to people who are testing, I think that’s where policing needs to be.”

Departments small and large across the country are facing challenges, said Chuck Wexler, executive director for Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit policing think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Officers are resigning or retiring at higher rates than applicants are becoming officers, he said. Even though more people are beginning to apply, there’s still a gap.

The hiring crisis has been far more pervasive than Wexler has seen before. Additional scrutiny applied to police officers in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd has had an impact on the amount of people who want the job, he said.

Earlier this year in Pennsylvania, the governor removed a requirement for applicants to have at least 60 college credits to be a state trooper. Applications surged within a month, with nearly half of the aspiring cadets having been previously ineligible, the Pennsylvania State Police said.

In Philadelphia, Tyler Derr, 29, was driven to become an officer because he wanted to be a public servant. After passing four phases of the physical exam, he said he found it easy.

“I think if anybody takes care of themselves and is physically active, this should be pretty easy for them,” he said, cautioning against lowering standards too much.

“I still think we should be holding ourselves to a high standard, physically and morally,” he said.

It was something Wexler cautioned too — you can tweak standards to open up wider opportunities, but you can’t make a mistake in hiring.

“It only takes one bad officer to bring down a department and impact an entire city. We saw that in Minneapolis,” he said. “The one thing you can’t make a mistake on is character.”

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Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.



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