Bill de Blasio and Bill Bratton’s NYPD is ushering in a new kind of policing, and to do it right they might need a new kind of cop. That was one takeaway from the Times’ richly detailed story on Monday about the community policing experiment underway in Far Rockaway.
Community policing as a concept isn’t exactly new, but the attempt to introduce it amid high distrust between cops and communities represents a novel challenge. Hence the need for cops who are less interested in making busts than in solving problems—more sociology than Starsky & Hutch. “The department,” wrote reporter J. David Goodman, “wants more applicants who can incorporate a measure of social work into a job that has long been defined almost exclusively by a willingness to face difficult situations and confront dangerous people.”
If that’s true, it might be time for the NYPD to revisit its age limit on recruits.
Right now, a person can take the NYPD exam only until age 35, although if a person served in the military he or she can extend the age limit for up to six years. The thinking behind the age restriction is pretty obvious: Younger people are more likely to be able to handle the physical requirements of training and, over the course of a career, any job.
That is true, on average. All else being equal, a 20-year-old is probably going to beat a 40-year-old in a foot race, and a 40-year-old is likely going to best a 50-year-old over the same distance.
But being 40 or 50 today is very different from what it was 20 years ago. People are living longer. They are smoking less. Folks who care about their health are eating better and exercising more. Plenty of people in their 50s, even in their 60s, are in extremely good physical condition. There are 40-year-olds playing professional baseball and football, even boxing. If you have run in a road-race recently, chances are someone who was 20 or 30 years your senior finished with a better time. While there is certainly a drop-off in physical assets—especially reflexes and the ability to recover from injuries—as one ages, exercise and diet can slow those declines and prevent steep losses in strength and stamina. I’d bet that many people in their late 30s and 40s reading this are in better shape now than they were in their mid-20s.
An NYPD that permitted older recruits would have to rigorously test the physical abilities of aging members, because being a police officer is, sometimes, a physical job: Police officers have to be capable of stuff like making rescues and prevailing in combat. Their lives and those of bystanders, victims and even perpetrators depend on a certain level of cop fitness.
But that is only one aspect of the job. Defusing tense situations, making decisions under pressure, communicating across lines of class, language and race—these are a more regular part of cop life than fistfights. And these elements of the job will only become more important as community policing takes hold.
Of course, there are young people who are very good at those things. And there are older people who are terrible at them. It also could be argued that older people are more likely to suffer from stone-set stereotypes, while younger people are more open to new views.
But older rookie cops would certainly offer the city some advantages. They’d be more likely to have had helpful life experiences before joining the force, which might allow them to better relate to and talk with the citizens they police. They’d have had time to acquire more education, which can’t hurt. They might have a little more of the self-confidence that can be a helpful thing in a tense situation. They may have less interest in the action-packed image of police work, meaning they’d be more likely to feel fulfilled by the sometimes mundane, managerial aspects of the actual job.
On the other hand, physical abilities aren’t the only advantage younger recruits offer the NYPD. Younger minds might be easier to mold and more comfortable accepting a paramilitary authority structure. Younger workers are more likely to be able to live on an NYPD salary and less likely to have family responsibilities that make the demands of night shifts, the rigor of weekend and holiday work and the risks inherent in the cop’s job even more burdensome.
However, most cops will eventually age into those attitudes, needs and responsibilities regardless of when they start on the force. The underlying truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a New York City police officer. It takes a special person to do the job well, and it seems unlikely in this era, given the evolving needs of modern law enforcement and the changing meaning of age, that a person’s time on the planet really bears on whether she or he belongs among The Finest.
What we have learned the hard way over the past few decades is that nothing on a person’s birth certificate—neither race nor gender nor ethnicity nor citizenship—really matters when it comes to the ability to protect New Yorkers and uphold the law. The date of birth probably doesn’t either.