Members of the Elizabethtown Borough Council met in executive session to interview several candidates for a police officer position.
So, should the public expect to see a newly hired officer on the job soon? Not so fast, Police Chief Jack Mentzer said.
Although interviews were conducted the evening of Thursday, June 1, that is just one step in a lengthy process for hiring an officer, Mentzer and Borough Council President Marc Hershey said in an interview on Monday, June 5. Mentzer said he will be lucky if an officer interviewed that evening starts in July, and the interviews came after a lengthy qualifying process.
Mentzer said state law requires borough police forces to use a regimented, inflexible hiring process implemented in the 1950s. Second-class township and regional police forces, even ones that include boroughs in their service areas, do not have to use the state civil service rules, allowing them to hire officers more quickly. Most other police forces have a similar hiring process to boroughs, Mentzer said, but not having to follow civil service rules allows them to condense the timeline.
“It honestly puts us at a hiring disadvantage,” Mentzer said.
To save money and to make the hiring process easier for potential officers, all the police departments in Lancaster County along with the county prison have one test given each autumn. About 400 applicants a year take the test, which starts with a physical agility test; those who pass the physical test go on to take a written test, Mentzer said.
After taking the written test, potential officers must complete a 23-page application and show that they have completed police academy training or that they are scheduled to complete it by the hiring date. They must also show that they have a high school diploma or the equivalent. Mentzer said most new officers have a bachelor’s degree, but they are still required to prove they completed high school. That is followed by a written test and an oral exam conducted by a panel of retired police chiefs and lieutenants. The process for hiring an officer takes at least four months and often longer, Mentzer said.
“It’s crazy that it has to be this way, but that’s just the way it is,” Mentzer said.
After that, there is an extensive background check that goes back to high school.
“We look under every rock, behind every tree,” Mentzer said, adding that police owe it to the community to hire only respected people as officers.
Hershey noted that the background check is done in person whenever possible rather than by phone or email.
“You physically send somebody out to check on a lot of these background references,” Hershey said.
At that point, Mentzer said his agency sometimes recommends disqualifying certain candidates for various reasons, such as illegal drug use. But the disqualification must be done by the borough’s Civil Service Commission, not by the police department itself.
“If we have somebody we’re going to eliminate, we have to get approval from the Civil Service Commission to eliminate them,” Mentzer said.
Mentzer said something that would be especially likely to eliminate a candidate is drug dealing, even if it was done years ago.
“Imagine the impact that could have on the community and the lack of confidence in the police department” if a newly hired officer were known to have sold illegal drugs years earlier, Mentzer said.
At that point, candidates are interviewed by the Borough Council. Hershey said interviews take 30 to 45 minutes each and focus on the candidate’s approach to community policing.
After that, Mentzer said, a conditional offer of employment is made, but the process is not over yet. Candidates must take a polygraph exam; Mentzer estimated that about 90 percent of applicants pass that, but some are found to have been hiding something. After that, there are psychological and physical exams, and the candidate must qualify with the police department’s duty weapon.
“If they graduate from the police academy, you can bet that they have basic shooting skills,” Mentzer said, but candidates might not have ever used the specific model of handgun used by Elizabethtown police.
After that, the candidate is hired as a full-time officer, but the new officer is not allowed to go on patrol solo. New officers are paired up with a field training officer for eight phases of training that take about two weeks for each phase.
“It is a very, very intense training program,” Mentzer said, and some newly hired officers wash out of it. But Mentzer said remedial training will be offered if needed because by this time, the police force has invested a lot of resources into the officer.
Typically, it takes five or six months after being hired full-time before an officer is placed on solo patrol, Mentzer said.
Although the process is long and can be frustrating, Mentzer said it results in good officers.
“Even though we could take some shortcuts in the process, it is not worth it,” Mentzer said.