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Recruit Age Limit Weighed in LAPD

Rules: Police Commission will review plan, backed by chief, that would prevent hiring those 35 and over. Current officers have mixed opinions on issue.

August 17, 1997|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's an age-old question: How old is too old to be a cop?

The Los Angeles Police Commission is scheduled to review a proposal next week, supported by new Chief Bernard C. Parks, that would require the LAPD to limit hiring of new recruits to those under 35. The department's previous age restriction was lifted in 1992 to conform with federal anti-discrimination laws. But last year, President Clinton signed a bill that again allows age restrictions for new law enforcement officers and firefighters.

To some, such as Dave Hepburn, head of the Los Angeles police union, there should be an age restriction on police officers even if they are in top physical and mental shape.

"What's a 65-year-old going to do?" said Hepburn, president of the Police Protective League. "They're not going to be jumping fences and chasing bad guys."

But to others, such as North Hollywood Sgt. Mike O'Donnell, older officers are well-received in the community: Residents--sometimes mistakenly--believe these officers are more experienced.

In an LAPD survey comparing officers 35 and older with officers under 35 hired between January 1990 and June 1996, the department's personnel division found a "drastically increased" attrition rate for the older group. Of the 3,708 new officer candidates, 238 were in the 35-and-older group. Of those, 75 resigned or were terminated--an attrition rate of 32%.

Several LAPD supervisors said older officers also are forced to leave the department because of injuries.

Said one: "What kind of investment is that? It's just not a good idea."

Just a couple of years ago, a 59-year-old rookie made national headlines when he began work in the LAPD's Foothill Division station, but four months later he was told to either resign or be fired because he allegedly wasn't meeting department standards.

"That one didn't work out, but we've had a few people who are considered older than average and they're doing fine," said Capt. Ronald Bergmann of the Foothill station. "But I think at some point there has to be a ceiling. How many productive years does someone have who comes on at 60?"

The training, recruitment and selection of an officer costs about $100,000, the LAPD says. So when one quits, the city loses financially, officials said. (As a result, the city last year began requiring officers to reimburse the costs of academy training if an officer leaves within 60 months of being certified and takes a job with another law enforcement agency within a year.)

Some department observers say the LAPD and the commission have realized for a variety of reasons that age limits need to be set.

"After a series of high-profile failures involving older recruits, I think it's becoming clearer . . . that cradle-to-grave hiring doesn't work in law enforcement," said a City Council aide. "And, the LAPD isn't a second career."

Still, some police said officers with more life experience are well-suited to some jobs in law enforcement.

O'Donnell, the sergeant in North Hollywood, said he began his career in the LAPD at 21.

"I had no life experiences," O'Donnell said. "Everything I've learned I've learned on the job."

Sgt. Edward Houston, who works in the Van Nuys police station, said the best qualifications don't necessarily include age. "If the person's in good physical and mental shape, that's what matters," Houston said. "That's it."

The LAPD had age restrictions from 1974 to 1992, except for a four-year period during the mid-1980s. In 1992, the city's Civil Service Commission removed the age limit to comply with federal laws.

At that time, then-Chief Willie L. Williams said that older officers generated fewer personnel complaints as well as excessive force allegations and took less sick time.

If the new proposal is approved by the Police Commission at its meeting Tuesday, the issue will go to the Civil Service Commission, which would need to amend the city's Civil Service rules.

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