Pre-employment Psychological Screening for Cops
by Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D.
I’ve been a police psychologist for thirty years; counseling, teaching, giving workshops, and writing books, both fiction and non-fiction. In my first book, Burying Ben, my fictional alter-ego, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, deals with a rookie Ben Gomez who kills himself and leaves a note blaming her (not a spoiler, you find this out on page one). She wonders how her ex-husband, who did Ben’s psych testing, ever found him suitable to be a cop. And why he didn’t uncover Ben’s many lies? This is fiction. Or is it?
The first time most cops see a psychologist is for preemployment screening. Applying for a police position is a strenuous, time-consuming endeavor. By the time applicants pass all the requirements—written forms, tests of reading and writing, role playing, a background investigation, a medical exam, a test of agility and, in many departments, a polygraph—they feel like members of an elite club. Barely two out of 100 applicants will have made it this far.
If the would-be officers were merely interested in the job prior to applying, they are in love with it by the time they get to the last feared hurdle, the psychologist. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the psychological exam is considered a medical evaluation that happens only after the applicant receives a conditional offer of employment. Conditional, that is, upon the psychologist’s report.
Psychologists who screen prospective officers are the first to admit that they are more effective screening problem people out than predicting who will make a good cop and why. Screening is a snapshot of the entry-level officer, considered valid for only one year. The psychological profile you get after the wear and tear of the work itself can look very different, especially for those who had problems before being hired. In my most recent book, The Fifth Reflection, time on the job, a stressful assignment investigating crimes against children, plus organizational betrayal, crush Manny Ochoa, an otherwise psychologically hardy officer. Sending Dot on a mission to help Manny find a killer, re-balance his life, and save his marriage.
The purpose of pre-employment screening is threefold: 1) To determine whether an applicant meets the minimum requirements for psychological suitability mandated by jurisdictional statutes and regulations; 2) Is free from any emotional or mental conditions that might adversely affect the performance of safety-based duties and responsibilities, and 3) Is capable of withstanding the psychological demands inherent in the position. In brief, the psychologist is looking at the applicant’s judgment, stress resilience, anger management, integrity, conscientiousness, teamwork, and social competence. Fifteen to twenty percent of the applicants who are interviewed by the psychologist, won’t go any further.
People who conduct pre-employment screenings are almost always doctoral level psychologists with confirmed experience assessing public safety applicants and whose practice is in compliance with established professional standards. There are, however, psychologists who offer cut-rate on-line assessments using un-validated tests, never interview the applicant in person or base their recommendations on subjective, looks-good-to-me interviews. The plot of The Right Wrong Thing pivots on the catastrophic ripple effects generated by an ill-trained, unethical psychologist who was operating far above the limits of her competency.
Properly done pre-employment screening consists of a consent form signed by the applicant, written psychological tests, a review of the background packet including polygraph results when available, mental health records, and information regarding the applicant’s relevant behavioral history (e.g., school, work, interpersonal, family, legal, financial, substance use) and a face-to-face interview, lasting thirty minutes to an hour. After analyzing all this material, the psychologist then submits a report to the hiring agency that includes a determination of the applicant’s psychological suitability for employment.
Can police psychologists do a better job screening out applicants with racist, homophobic, or misogynistic attitudes? For the answer I turned to several colleagues with extensive experience in preemployment psychological screening. Their consensus is that the best place for ferreting out negative attitudes is a comprehensive background investigation supplemented by a polygraph. Because preemployment psychological screening is based on self-disclosure, it is unlikely that applicants who knowingly harbor biases will admit this to an examining psychologist and jeopardize their chances at the job. On the other hand, even a thorough background investigation and a polygraph are not fail safe. What’s to prevent employers, co-workers, neighbors and family members, who are invested in the applicant getting the job, from covering up any problematic behavior they have observed?
The second-best place to dig deeply into the applicant’s mind-set is the in-person interview. Most screening psychologists use tests that measure tolerance, social competence, cynicism, and teamwork. While not specifically targeting racist, misogynistic or homophobic attitudes, the results can point to problematic attitudes. When these attitudes are uncovered in the interview, or corroborate behavior identified by the background investigation and/or the polygraph, then there are grounds to find the candidate unsuitable.
Can the system be improved? My psychology colleagues are always at work developing new and better ways to approach screening; revising assessment instruments, tracking results, comparing candidate profiles over time, and amassing large data bases. But they need help. One way to improve the selection process is to create a coordinated feedback loop between psychologists and police managers. When managers identify hired officers who have become problem employees, this assists psychologists in validating and refining their selection procedures.
A second path to improvement again requires coordination between the screening psychologist and police managers. When departments are short staffed and desperate for applicants, they sometimes fail to reject a candidate who has demonstrated intolerance or bias. Or to inform the psychologist about these known attitudes. Rejecting a candidate for behavior that has already met department standards, creates a dilemma for the psychologist.
How does Dot Meyerhoff handle such dilemmas and what will she do in the next mystery? I’m just beginning to work on the first draft, but I can tell you things are not going well at Kenilworth PD. And the problem seems to have started in the communication center, where none of the dispatchers have ever been psychologically screened.
***The author wishes to thank to Susan Saxe-Clifford, Mike Roberts, Phil Trompetter, and Dave Corey for their consultation on this post.
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