5 questions answered about pre-employ psych testing for cops

The public expects police to be professionals — police agencies should expect no less from the psychologists who evaluate their personnel

Consider the following from an Associated Press article published in August 2015: 

“A psychological firm paid to evaluate troubled Baltimore police, including a lieutenant charged in the killing of Freddie Gray, is under investigation by the city and has been put on probation by the state police for cutting corners in its mental health screenings of officers. An investigation showed that the company’s psychologists were completing evaluations of officers' mental stability in 15 minutes instead of the 45 minutes required by the state contract. Experts say 15 minutes is far too short to adequately conduct psychological assessments, either for police applicants or officers seeking to return to active duty.”

Reports from my police psychologist colleagues — and communications from police officer applicants who feel like they’ve been unfairly bumped from consideration for law enforcement positions — suggest that the above story is not an isolated incident. Accordingly, it’s important to appreciate the proper role of psych screenings in the law enforcement hiring process.

1. Why do a Psych Screening?
Law enforcement is a high-stress, people-intensive profession. Before a department invests the time and resources in hiring, training, and fielding an officer, it wants to be reasonably sure that officer will be able to perform his or her job, will not pose a risk or danger to the public, and won’t create a liability for the department. 

2. What Are They Looking For?
Not paragons of mental health, just candidates that are reasonably stable, mature, and responsible. The law enforcement pre-employment psych screening is actually a rather course net designed to catch significant mental disturbance or personality disorder that would be incompatible with the role of a police officer. 

It is unlikely that an officer candidate with a severe psychotic, mood, personality, or substance abuse disorder would get through this net, but smaller psychological fish, such as erratic mood swings, narcissistic entitlement, under-the-radar alcohol misuse, or extreme prejudicial beliefs just might wriggle through the meshwork. 

One common mistake of officer candidates is pretending to be too perfect and then getting bounced for dishonest exaggeration.

3. What Does the Exam Consist of?
The exact content and procedure of pre-employment screenings can vary widely from agency to agency, but ideally, a competent pre-employment psych screen should contain at least two main elements: 

1) A clinical interview 
2) One or more standardized psychological tests

During the clinical interview, the psychologist asks a range of questions about the candidate’s background, work history, current lifestyle, any symptoms or problems she may be experiencing, and what his expectations are about the job. 

A properly conducted law enforcement psychological interview should not feel like an interrogation — in fact, it shouldn’t be any more adversarial than other types of job interviews.  

The number of psychological tests employed may range from one to a dozen, but typically, between two and four well-standardized measures will be administered. In fact, the typical candidate spends more time hunched over a set of bubble tests with a number-2 pencil in his or her hand than he or she spends face-to-face with the psychologist. Another reason for answering questions honestly is that many of these tests have built-in measures for detecting inconsistency and exaggeration. 

4. How Are the Results Determined?
Usually, the examiner will weigh three things: 

1) Impressions from the clinical interview
2) The psychometric test results
3) The material obtained from a review of the applicant’s past medical, employment, and other records

These factors are then placed into a kind of formula that yields one of several determinations, often expressed in terms of low, medium, or high risk of projected future performance problems on the job. The rationale for these conclusions is provided in the text of a written report that is then sent to the law enforcement agency’s hiring committee for them to consider along with all the other data they use to make the final hiring decision. 

5. Who Does These Evaluations?
That’s the crux of the problem noted in the above AP article. The quality of these assessments is only as good as the training, expertise, and experience of the evaluators. And as the title story indicates, contracts for these services are typically awarded to multi-staffed psychological “assessment centers” — which often do evaluations for firefighters, paramedics, and other public safety personnel as well as police departments — on a low-bid basis, who then recruit psychological examiners to work on an independent-contract basis who, in turn, are willing to work on a high-volume, low-fee basis. 

So now you have the pleasure of knowing that the evaluator (who’s making a determinative decision about your entire career) got his or her job not necessarily because of any special credentials or qualifications, but because he or she was the cheapest deal on the block. 

Having said that, I know a number of very competent, very professional psychologists who do pre-employment screenings, and usually other types of police psychological work as well. But these are typically independent practitioners, not test-mill employees, and I guarantee they’re not doing their evaluations in 15 minutes – or even 45 minutes. 

Realistically, it’s going to take at least a couple of hours to conduct a valid pre-employment psychological screening for any high-level profession, including clinical interview, psych testing, and preparing the report. 

Evaluators who cannot competently and ethically offer these services should not be doing this work, and law enforcement agencies who will not pay for valid screenings should not be hiring. 

The repercussions of sloppy assessments for clinicians is an erosion of trust in the field of psychology on the part of law enforcement personnel. The impact on police agencies may be felt in poorer quality of policing, increased citizen complaints, and higher liability to the department in negligent hiring and retention lawsuits, just one of which can erase the “savings” from retaining a low-bid assessment center many times over. The public expects police to be professionals — police agencies should expect no less from the psychologists who evaluate their personnel.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

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