Police Psychology | Thoughts on Fitness for Duty Evaluations
by Elizabeth Thompson, Psy.D.
Thompson & Associates
I received a telephone call from a Deputy Chief recently regarding the attempted suicide of an Officer that I had evaluated for Fitness for Duty over a year ago. The Officer had severe PTSD and could never return to work in spite of various interventions. I remember having talked to the Officer when I re-evaluated him after three months of therapy and discussing other options besides police work. He seemed open to the idea of change and realized that his PTSD would make it impossible for him to work as a police Officer. Now, a year later he tried to kill himself. It seems that he was never able to define himself as anything other than a police Officer and couldn’t see a life outside of the Department.
When we do Fitness for Duty Evaluations we make it clear that our client is the Department that hired us and yet we also have an obligation to the Officer whose life and livelihood is in our hands. This creates a dual relationship in spite of our making clear that the Department is our client. After all, we have created a relationship with the Officer because we are assessing that Officer for psychological fitness. In that process, we learn a great deal about the Officer which, in a sense, creates a relationship and perhaps some obligation.
It has been my experience that Officers are mandated for Fitness for Duty Evaluations for a number of reasons. Sometimes they get into trouble for making bad decisions personally or on the job. Sometimes, they drink too much. Sometimes, there are domestic issues. Sometimes there are anger management issues. Sometimes they have very clear and definable mental health issues. Often, when I have evaluated an Officer for fitness, the Officer comes in tense, guarded, and anxious. The Officer knows the reason for the evaluation and may believe that my role is to help the Department take the first step towards termination. I always explain the purpose of the evaluation as well as the process of the evaluation. I mention that the information shared with me is not confidential, but then I ask the Officer to be as honest as possible with me. I often wonder whether they can really be honest given the lack of confidentiality.
So what is our obligation to the Officer? Clearly our job is to determine whether the Officer is psychologically fit for duty. But if the Officer is not fit, depending on the Department rules, this could mean the Officer is terminated, loses pay, or loses sick time that goes against their retirement date. Of course, this should not be our concern because our job is to keep the Officer and public safe and to protect the Department in the event that the Officer is psychologically unfit. But, I think that we do have to consider the consequences for the Officer as well.
Many years ago I completed a FFDE on someone. The Officer was clearly tense and quite paranoid. It took him over 8 hours to complete the testing. It was clear from the assessment that the Officer was not fit for duty. During the evaluation, the Officer kept telling me that he was sure he would be fired. I tried to explain that my job was to see whether he was fit for duty and, if not, to recommend that he get help. I also explained that just because he might be unfit did not mean that he would be fired. Of course, the Officer did not believe me. I sent the report to the Department with my finding of unfitness as well as recommendations for therapy and re-evaluation after a period of time. The Department called the Officer and told him over the telephone that he had been found unfit. They also gave him my recommendations for therapy. Quite honestly, I did not know the Department’s protocol for imparting a fitness finding to the Officer. I had never worked with that Department before. I had thought that the Department would call the Officer in to discuss the findings and to give him a copy of the report. I was clearly wrong. That afternoon, the Officer killed himself. His wife called me the next day to tell me that her husband had been distraught when finding out that he was found unfit for duty. He believed that he would lose his job and just couldn’t imagine life not being a police Officer. Unfortunately, I had not been able to convince him that he would not be fired. I don’t know if it would have made a difference if the Department had brought the Officer in to discuss my recommendations or even if I had discussed my concerns with the Officer after my assessment. But I do know that something more was needed.
That evaluation was a defining moment for me because it clarified my duty to the Officer I am evaluating. Now when I do an evaluation, I make it clear to the Department that I will tell the Officer about my findings before that Officer leaves my office. After all, I have already reviewed all the material that was provided for me. I have the results of the testing, and I have the results of my interview with the Officer. I know whether the Officer is fit or not. I also make it clear that the Department will share my report with the Officer within a few days. I also make clear to the Department that giving the Officer the results of my evaluation needs to be done in person and not over the telephone.
Generally, the Officer knows what to expect even before they come for the evaluation. At some level the Officer knows he is depressed, has been drinking too much, is having problems at work or home or whatever the issue is that resulted in the FFD evaluation. He has most probably been trying not to let those problems impact his ability to work as an Officer. Others around him have probably also ignored the warning signs that there is a problem. Often, the Officer just needs someone to tell him what he already knows and to propose recommendations to help him. I have never had an Officer seem surprised when I have told him that I have concerns regarding his psychological fitness for duty. In most cases, the Officer actually seemed relieved.
I also make certain that I know exactly what finding an Officer unfit for duty means for the Department. If it means the Officer will be fired, the probability is that I will not work with that Department. I just don’t think someone should be fired for a psychological issue especially if the Officer is willing to get help for it and there is hope for improvement. I have also worked at educating Departments that I work with. Fitness for Duty evaluations should not be viewed as punitive. Instead, they should be viewed as a process through which Officers in need of help will get the help needed so that they can return to being Police Officers or, if necessary, consider other employment.
According to Badge of Life, in the first six months of 2015 there were 51 suicides by Police Officers. Considering the high stress job that Police Officers have, it is not surprising that many Officers might have problems and that some might resort to suicide. It is also not surprising that many Officers resort to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their stress. Nor is it surprising that some Officers take their frustrations out on their significant others. When these issues begin to impact their work, these Officers are often referred for Fitness for Duty evaluations. It is our job to not only evaluate those Officers but also to help them to realize that help is available for them. Being found unfit is not necessarily a bad thing. In some ways it can actually lead to a better life. In some cases it may also save a life. However, we need to also be aware that we are impacting that Officer’s life both financially and emotionally. So our responsibility to that Officer must also be taken into consideration.
Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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