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Past Drug Use, Future Cops

Departments have relaxed their hiring standards, with officers enforcing laws they once broke. But for those who now get caught, redemption doesn't come so easily.


DENVER — Nobody expects police departments to hire saints. The job is tough, and recruits with street smarts often edge out those with unblemished resumes. Even so, the confessions of Ellis "Max" Johnson II, one of Denver's newest officers, were startling in their candor.

Under questioning from background investigators, Johnson admitted he had used drugs on approximately 150 occasions--not just marijuana, but also crack, LSD, speed, PCP, mescaline, Darvon, Valium.

"And God knows what else," groaned Denver Councilman Ed Thomas.

Although personnel files are among the most closely guarded of police secrets, a copy of Johnson's was leaked to the media after he entered the academy last fall, sparking a fierce debate over the city's hiring practices. Many here called him an embarrassment to the badge, even a threat to public safety. But Denver's Civil Service Commission, which sets the criteria for police hiring, insisted that the 40-year-old former karate instructor had been clean since 1987 and deserved a second chance.

The commission then revealed an even bigger secret about police recruitment, one that is true for many metropolitan departments rushing to expand: Among new hires, prior drug use is the rule, not the exception. The pharmacopeia Johnson sampled may have been extreme, but with their frankness coaxed by a polygraph, 84% of Denver's police applicants--and at least 65% of its recent hires--have acknowledged some past experimentation, according to civil service records.

"Let's wake up," said Paul Torres, the commission's former executive director. "The days of Mayberry are long gone."

Such forgiveness can come back to haunt a city, as Los Angeles is learning from the Rampart scandal, which has exposed serious breakdowns in the LAPD's hiring process. Yet even if every recruit who had ever smoked dope turned out to be a model officer, it would still underscore one of the great contradictions of the drug war:

How can a substance be so pernicious that thousands of Americans are arrested every day for using it, yet so acceptable that a user can still grow up to be a cop? In some cases, officers bust people for acts they themselves have committed--acts that, had they been detected, surely would have doomed a law enforcement career. If police are that permissive with their own, how can the law be so punitive with others? Whose consumption gets treated as a malevolent scourge? Whose gets written off as a youthful indiscretion?

"The way this country looks at drugs, you're a criminal only if you get caught," said Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and former police chief of San Jose and Kansas City, Mo. "It's such an incredible hypocrisy."

To gauge the limits of Denver's forbearance--and, by extension, the degree to which those who enforce America's drug laws also have broken them--The Times reviewed the employment applications of every officer hired here in 1999. The files, made available under Colorado's Open Records Act, were heavily censored, with most identifying information redacted. But in the "Drug Use" section, the responses were consistent: Of the city's 80 recruits last year, 52 admitted partaking.

Stories of Marijuana Use Are Plentiful

Most of it was marijuana, usually small amounts, long ago. A puff in high school. Three to five times with a college roommate. "On a cruise ship off the island of Dominica," wrote one officer. "Older stepbrother was smoking and asked me to try it," explained another. "Given to me at a party," added a third, who was transferring to Denver from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Although a majority stopped at marijuana, 10 of the pot smokers went further. One dropped acid. One ate psilocybin mushrooms. One tripped on ecstasy. A former Army soldier admitted to smoking hashish oil in his barracks; he also took amphetamines--a "black beauty" and a "robin's egg"--while on field exercises at Ft. Bragg.

Then there were a few, like Johnson, whose use appeared to push the boundaries of experimentation. One officer, who had smoked pot "about 25 times," admitted to buying quarter-ounce baggies of weed on three occasions. "This is a mistake I deeply regret making," he wrote. Another, who was once released to his parents after police stopped him with a small amount of marijuana, chronicled about 75 drug experiences over two decades--including speed, cocaine, LSD and Librium.

"If you polled the American public and asked the same kind of questions, what answers do you think you would get--from lawyers or judges or doctors or MBAs or CPAs or military people or even journalists?" asked Kristopher Colley, one of the Denver Civil Service Commission's five voting members.

With privacy laws varying from state to state, comparable data from other law enforcement agencies could not be obtained. But interviews with more than two dozen police officials and criminal justice experts indicate that Denver's experience is repeated across the nation.

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