We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Every Thursday, the MPD casts its net for new recruits.

Each week, a converted hospital in D.C. Village in Southwest plays host to a familiar scene—the pencils and proctors and time limits of a standardized aptitude test.

These aren’t students trying to get into college or law school, however. A higher-than-average number of men sport crew cuts, and there’s an Army T-shirt or two among the suits and ties. Many of the test-takers—both men and women—work as security guards or correctional officers.

When the members of the group put their pencils down, after about an hour, they are told that they’ll be given a list of information needed for their background investigations. They are reminded that they should start training for a physical test, too.

Together, they have taken their first step in becoming officers in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

For many, this first step is surprisingly simple. Every Thursday afternoon since April 12, the MPD’s Office of Recruiting has thrown its doors open to anyone who wants to take the written test to become an officer. According to police officials, an average of 45 people have tested each week since the program began.

A quick glance at the study guide reveals that the weekly test assesses basic skills that a high school graduate or a General Education Diploma holder should possess, using situations that one might find in urban police work. Reading comprehension questions target the differences between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless homicide. Math questions quiz recruits on the cumulative value of a stolen TV, gold chain, stereo, and radio. The final section breaks with the multiple-choice format by asking applicants to fill out a police report, with responses in complete sentences required. According to the MPD, more than 80 percent of those who have taken the exam have passed it.

Many applicants say they learned of the new walk-in initiative either from the department’s Web site or from officers who are already on the force.

Jeff Sumler, who took the May 10 exam, heard about the program from a retired officer who is a fellow Freemason. “[I] always wanted to be in law enforcement, in one way or another,” Sumler says. “I always liked that field, and I figured, Hey, nation’s capital. Why not?”

Mark Van Alstin drove down from upstate New York state in green shorts, sandals, and a New York Yankees T-shirt to take the test. He wants the chance to become a city cop, despite his 37 years. “There’s no age requirement [in D.C.], and I like the thought of a bigger city,” says Van Alstin, who spent six years as a New York state corrections officer and studies criminal justice at Empire State College. New York, he notes, caps the age of its new police recruits at 35.

The MPD’s walk-in recruiting program is spurred, at least in part, by the department’s well-publicized drive to increase its size. Officials want to expand the ranks from 3,550 officers to 3,800 by October 2002, but some observers wonder whether such an expansion drive—and the casual nature of the walk-in process—may dilute the quality of the force.

Inspector Jeffrey Moore, who heads the MPD’s Office of Recruiting, says that the walk-in exam is part of the department’s efforts to broaden its applicant pool. He notes that retirement and other types of attrition drain existing ranks and make enlarging the force tricky.

“You’ve got to hire 16 or 17 [new officers each month] to keep up with the number of folks that are separating—that are retiring or resigning,” observes Moore. “And you have to exceed that.”

Recruiters have cast their nets far and wide, attending job fairs in states from Georgia to Connecticut and holding open houses at the D.C. Convention Center in 1999 and 2000. Those open houses—which displayed mountain bikes, harbor-patrol boats, motorcycles, and diving gear to showcase career paths available to MPD recruits—drew 315 applications in 1999 and 282 candidates in 2000. (Another showcase is under consideration for this fall, at a price tag of approximately $50,000.)

Moore adds that he’s even pondering a recruiting junket to Puerto Rico—where the MPD placed an ad in the island’s predominant Spanish-language newspaper, El Nuevo Dia—in an effort to boost the number of Spanish-speaking officers in the District.

Before the April walk-in program commenced, the department waited until a few hundred applications had piled up and then offered a Saturday test every 10 or 11 weeks. Though many more candidates were invited to these less regularly scheduled tests than have attended the walk-in exam—1,000 in December and 700 each in February and April—fewer than half of those chosen actually showed up.

“It’s not the easiest thing to do to get someone to wait two-and-a-half months to take an entry-level test,” says Moore, who adds that applicants who have been tested are more likely to stay in the hiring process.

The walk-in approach was fine-tuned in the MPD’s Police Cadet Program, which taps 17- to 20-year-olds to work for the department part time in support positions as they earn associate’s degrees at the University of the District of Columbia. Allowing people to apply on the spot as cadets allowed word of mouth to spur recruitment, says Moore, who then adapted the approach to the MPD’s search for entry-level police officers.

Applicants can show up 15 minutes beforehand, fill out an application on the spot, and take the test right away.

“Somebody told me about it, just about an hour ago,” said corrections officer Steven Amobi, as he prepared to take the July 19 test.

Nearly 500 people took the walk-in test in the program’s first 11 weeks, and Moore believes that regular testing on Thursdays has worked just as well as more infrequent weekend exams.

Some observers worry that the more casual application and testing process might invite a similar nonchalance in applicants, attracting those who might not be serious about becoming police officers.

At present, 20 percent to 25 percent of those who take the initial written exam don’t show up for the next phase—the physical test. Beyond that, there are still more than five months of training, background investigations, and medical and psychological evaluations before recruits become officers. Only 6 percent to 7 percent of applicants to the MPD actually make it through the entire process.

Louis Cannon, president of the D.C. One Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, says that the order welcomes the walk-in approach as a way of bringing more applicants into the mix. He is concerned, however, that there is potential for the MPD—pressed to hire new recruits—to cut corners on background investigations and other parts of the screening process.

Cannon observes that a similar urgency to fill the MPD’s ranks was brought to bear from 1988 to 1990. Asked whether the less stringent standards used at that time caused problems, Cannon says that they “created a lot of work in the future for Internal Affairs.”

Fraternal Order of Police Metropolitan Police Labor Committee Chair Sgt. G.G. Neill sees a general decline in the number of people who want to enter police work in the District. “You used to have people wait for years to come on this job,” he says. “It’s not that way anymore, and that’s obvious.”

Neill adds that, in his opinion, the need for a walk-in program is a symptom of the larger difficulty that the MPD has in attracting and retaining qualified officers. He doesn’t disagree that the department should recruit in this manner, but he argues, “My feeling is that we don’t get our best candidates with the walk-in program, just on the face of it.”

Sgt. Tony Giles of the MPD’s Office of Recruiting says that the department is using “the same type of standards” for the walk-in recruits as it did for previous applicants.

“The caseload is picking up,” says Giles of the impact that the walk-in program has had on recruiting. “That’s the only impact.”

On a Saturday in June, nearly two months after the walk-in program was initiated, some of the first walk-in applicants whom the MPD has invited back for the Police Officer Physical Ability Test are put through their paces.

Dressed in standard-issue police vests and belts with fake guns in their holsters, applicants begin the physical test in the driver’s seat of a police car. An officer in the passenger seat shows each recruit a suspect’s photo, and the candidate must then complete an obstacle course that includes dashing through a series of cones; running up and down a flight of stairs; dragging a 160-pound dummy 25 feet; climbing a 6-foot chain-link fence; and then identifying the suspect in the photo from a lineup of four mannequins seated behind a table. The course must be completed in 88 seconds, after which each candidate dry-fires a pistol. Typically, 90 percent of the applicants invited to take the physical test pass it.

Candidate John Osborn says that the workout is harder than it looks. “It’s one of those things that when they go through it with you and they tell you it looks easy…and then all of a sudden you do it, and you’re out here dying for breath at the end,” he says. CP