After owning up to smoking pot, three top-scoring police recruits almost didn’t get the job — until police commissioners intervened and voted to let their past drug use slide.
In a special meeting at 1 Union Ave. on Tuesday night, the Board of Police Commissioners evaluated a total of 13 candidates who’d flunked the background checks, putting them a vote away from rejection.
The department had moved to eliminate the 13 candidates from a list of potential cadets who had passed a civil-service test and been extended provisional offers.
In a series of split votes, the commissioners spared three applicants who’d gotten high on pot as far as two decades ago.
By contrast, commissioners signaled that more recent bong rippers, cocaine snorters and juvenile offenders still aren’t cut out for the job by upholding recommendation to reject nine of those applicants.
Another candidate who complained about the department’s handling of his personnel file also got a reprieve.
The four who won reprieves Tuesday night return to a pool of applicants who passed background checks and now advance to the next stages of the process: a lie-detector test and a psychological evaluation. By late April, the department will choose a 40-person academy class from the list.
It’s impossible to know exactly why the police commissioners voted the way they did Tuesday. Four candidates didn’t show up at all, and six others pleaded their case behind closed doors. The commissioners deliberated in private for 11 minutes.
And the department won’t publicly reveal a newly approved hiring policy concerning past drug use — a refusal that the Independent is challenging as a violation of the state’s open records law.
The commissioners’ votes this week suggest they’re carrying out a new set of rules, instituting a progressive drug policy that affords leniency to those who puffed on marijuana at some point. One recruit who admitted to smoking five years ago got a reprieve, while another who smoked within the last year did not.
“We just looked at the policy, and that’s what we went by,” said Anthony Dawson, the commission’s chair. “It’s changing, it’s changing all over: medical marijuana, all this stuff, some places already had it legalized. We have to look at society the way it is.”
“We’re trying to be reasonable,” Stephen Garcia, another commissioner, jumped in.
“We need numbers,” Dawson went on. “So what is it? What can you take and not take? We’re not trying to treat anyone differently. We’re just trying to look at how do you get the best candidates possible.”
The police maintain that they can’t disclose what’s in the new guidelines without foiling their background checks. They argue that releasing specific timelines for acceptable drug use would encourage applicants to lie to investigators.
Several wannabe cops, however, said they’d rather have clarity on the rules than have wasted everyone’s time. One pointed out that if the lie-detector test can’t catch falsehoods, then the current system actually punishes those who come clean, as he did.
The background checks eliminated some of the front-runners to become cadets.
Alex Alvarez, the second-highest-ranked applicant among the 440 recruits with a passing score, just missed perfection with 99.86 points on his civil service test. He was excluded because of his history, and he didn’t try to contest it.
Other top scorers flagged by investigators included Ronald Turner, 11th best, at 97.83 points; Miguel Pittman, Sr., 15th best, at 97.09 points; and Robert Spino, 17th best, at 96.80 points. Commissioners would keep two of them on the list and leave one behind.
The Police Commission originally scheduled votes to formally rescind the conditional job offers on Feb. 27. “You may attend … to provide a brief testimony or information for the Board’s consideration,” Assistant Chief Racheal Cain wrote in a letter.
But that special meeting was abruptly cancelled. Starting a half-hour late, the commissioners read the agenda, introduced themselves, and without any discussion, unanimously voted to adjourn. The whole meeting lasted less than two minutes.
Two days later, the commissioners got together again to discuss a drug policy for new hires. After an hour-long executive session, they passed the policy unanimously without any public discussion, or even acknowledgement of what they were voting on.
After that meeting, city lawyers and department brass denied requests to look over the new policy, and they refused to answer questions about what it contained. The Independent filed an appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission on Monday, requesting disclosure of the policy and any notes from the closed-door meeting. (Read more about that here.)
“I’m Not Proud Of It”
With the new policy in place, commissioners regrouped on Tuesday night to review the 13 candidates who’d been disqualified by their backgrounds.
Starting around 5:30 p.m., eight of the job-seekers trickled into police headquarters. Waiting in the lobby until the meeting started, they traded stories about what had tripped them up. (They asked that their names be withheld from this article to candidly discuss past behavior.)
One spoke of experimenting with drugs in college, trying marijuana and a prescription stimulant more than five years ago.
One reported getting blackout drunk last year and waking up with a bloody nose, leading him to suspect he’d done coke.
Three more said they smoked marijuana: one a year ago, one 10 years ago, and one 19 years ago. “I’m not proud of it,” said the one who admitting toking from 1995 to 1999. “I’m a better man today.”
After the meeting was called to order, recruits took turns making their final pitch to the Police Commission. With their career on the line, some argued that the background reports were inaccurate; others, that they shouldn’t matter.
After one session, a candidate plopped down right on the floor, saying the presentation had wracked her nerves.
Two applicants chose to make their appeals in public: one went procedural; the other, emotional.
Pittman, the 15th-ranked recruit, runs a study group on how to get hired. He argued that the police had given him limited time to review his personnel file, violating the state open records law along the way.
The police department didn’t allow him to take home a copy of his 90-page dossier, even though he’d successfully appealed to the Freedom of Information Commission in 2016 about that very practice, he said.
“Again, the New Haven Police Department is not releasing a copy of my file, so my lawyer could be able to prepare me to go before the board,” Pittman argued. “I am getting my rights denied.”
Spino, the 17th-ranked recruit, admitted to making mistakes eight years ago, but he said they were long behind him.
“The incident that is keeping me from continuing in this process happened when I was 18 years old. It was a bad situation I was in, and I made bad choices. I regret it every day when I wake up,” he said. “Since then, I changed my pattern of behavior. I served my country [in the Marines]. ... I got my degree in criminal justice, and right now, I’m being certified to be an EMT. Everything I have done to become a better person to prepare for this career.”
Unspecified “Statute Of Limitations”
After that appeal, the police commissioners brought everyone back into the room. Garcia called off each name on the list for a vote. The recruits stood silently with their hands clasped, looking ahead. Dawson slammed the gavel after each count, sealing each candidate’s fate.
Nine candidates, including Spino, were axed by unanimous vote; one, the man who got high way back in the 1990s, was kept on unanimously.
The commissioners split on the other three. Pittman squeaked by on a 2-to-3 removal vote. The other two pot-smokers made it in 1-to-4 removal votes.
After the vote, Dawson, the commission’s chair, said the new policy effectively offers a “statute of limitations” on candidates’ past drug use.
“When is it going to be? Everlasting? We’re not the only ones grasping with that; every police commission in America is wrestling with that,” he said.
“You see the numbers; you see how many retirements we got. We’re not going to have police on the street in a while. That’s not what we’re trying to get to.”
Dawson added that the standards will be consistent going forward: “Everybody that’s going through this process will have the same policy.”
Assistant Chief Cain declined to comment on what’s in the department’s drug use policy. She referred questions to Michael Wolak, the senior assistant corporation counsel, who said he couldn’t discuss “confidential information.”
A “Right To Know”
One rejected applicant said it was “bullshit” for the department not to release its drug policy.
“We have a right to know,” he said. “I’d never have put the time in if I’d known.”
Another candidate who didn’t make it past the commission said he’d been punished for telling the truth. “I didn’t have to tell them; it’s not on my background,” he said.
He pointed out that other candidates might have lied about their drug use, figuring they could game the polygraph test. That wouldn’t be hard to do, he added.
“A lot of states are going away from the polygraph,” he said. “People beat it all the time.”
As the American Psychological Association has written, “There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.”
That candidate also said he wished he’d known what is in the drug policy. He asked the police for a copy. They declined to turn it over.
Ex-Top Cop Weighs In
A retired top New Haven cop, meanwhile, came out in favor of making public the hiring drug policy.
The cop, retired former Assistant Chief John Velleca, said he understands the concern over revealing the precise rule on how recent drug use will disqualify a candidate. But he said that the public is left having less confidence in the police if they don’t know the department’s policies.
“I don’t think it’s a battle you need to fight. We look like we’re hiding things,” Velleca said during an appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program about the New Haven department’s decision to keep the policy secret along with any discussion of it. “We’ve just got to put it out there.”
Velleca said that in New Hampshire, where he ran a local police agency, applicants could access a link online that showed them the policy. In New Hampshire, applicants are disqualified if they’ve used marijuana within the past two years.
Closer to home, Hartford’s Police Department is clear that it doesn’t permit any marijuana use in the last 12 months, said Deputy Chief Brian Foley. Their department also includes a “subjective review board,” made up of representatives from the NAACP, community organizations and department leaders to double-check some eliminations.
The Waterbury Police Department doesn’t have a “hard, set policy” on drugs, instead reviewing candidates on a “case-by-case basis,” based on the frequency of use, the amount used and the time that’s gone by, said Deputy Chief Fred Spagnolo. Similar to Hartford, Waterbury’s department also has a panel that decides which backgrounds disqualify a candidate. Those decisions can then be appealed to the Civil Service Commission.
Bridgeport’s police chief did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Click on the above audio file or Facebook Live video below for the full WNHH FM “Dateline New Haven” interview with John Velleca, which also touched on the police budget and on the Parkland massacre.