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Strategies for answering situational questions

Oral boards are now moving more towards questions which outline a situation and ask the candidate how he/she would handle it

Our last article on police promotional examinations dealt with how to achieve a high score in traditional oral examinations. After some final thoughts on traditional oral exams we will begin to explore other methods used by departments to determine who among the candidates has the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits requisite for promotion.

My previous article provided readers with a short list of major topics often asked by panelists in traditional oral examinations. However, it has been my experience that oral boards are now moving more towards questions which outline a situation and ask the candidate how he/she would handle it. The questions work under the supposition that the candidate will demonstrate knowledge of the department’s policy and procedure, constitutional and state law, and “doing behaviors” in resolving the situation. Keep in mind that your answer should always put the interests of the organizations first and the answer must be at the level you are testing for-Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, and so on.

Here are some sample questions that follow the methodology described above:

1. You are the highest ranking officer on the evening shift. A domestic dispute turns into a hostage situation with a man holding his wife and children captive. He is also threatening suicide. What would you do?

2. An officer is involved in the pursuit of a motorist. As a Sergeant, how would you handle the decision whether to allow the pursuit to continue or not. What would you base your decision on?

3. You arrive at the scene of a motor vehicle stop where you see three of your officers are searching a cars trunk. They have seized a quantity of cocaine from the trunk. What question’s would you ask?

4. An officer calls you to the scene of a motor vehicle stop where the operator has rolled up the windows, locked the car, and is unresponsive. How would you handle this?

5. An officer approaches you and states the court has issued a protective order against him due to a domestic dispute he had with his wife, What should you do as a supervisor?

6. A female dispatcher who works directly under your supervision complains to you that a male officer has made unwanted sexual advances How would you handle this situation?

7. An officer under your supervision does not get along with anyone. How would you handle this?

8 . The city has a housing project which is predominately black. There is a block party going on and there are about 200 people there. Your department receives an
anonymous loud music complaint from the area. As a Sergeant you receive information that there are gang members attending the event and they may be armed. What would you do?

9. The chief tells you he wants an officer to man a traffic post that requires him to direct traffic. You feel the location the chief has designated does not need an officer. The officer assigned feels he is being punished for no reason. How would you handle this?

10. What are police ethics and how would you go about communicating these to your officers?

As you can see these types of questions allow panelist to probe into the depth of a candidate’s knowledge and also ask follow-up questions about why the candidate would or would not take a particular course of action.

Another method of testing for oral communication skills involves having the candidate give a presentation to the oral panel rather than answer traditional questions. In this method the candidate reports to a room and is handed an envelope containing directions and a situation. The candidate is given a block of time (25 minutes) to read the situation, plan a presentation, and report to the oral panel room and give a presentation to the panelists. The candidate is informed that the panelist may or may not ask questions of the candidate after the candidate is finished with his/her presentation. In this type of oral examination the candidate is responsible for managing his or her time. Most candidates take too long preparing for the presentation ( 10-15 minutes) before entering the room and then only have a short time in which to be graded. The questions and/or situation are not designed to be difficult. Put some ideas in bullet form on a piece of paper and then enter the room and demonstrate your excellence! An example of this method follows:

Anywhere Police Sergeant Oral Examination
Candidate Directions

ATTENTION!!! You have a total of twenty-five minutes (25) to complete your oral examination. The moment you were provided with this examination sheet your oral examination began and you are responsible for managing the twenty-five minutes of time allotted for the examination. You are to read the following scenario, enter the designated examination room and make a presentation to the panelists explaining in detail how you would handle the following situation as a police sergeant. Note: The panelists will not ask you any questions while you are giving your presentation and may or may not ask you questions following your presentation.

Examination Question:

You are a sergeant assigned to the patrol division. You learn that several patrol officers under your direct supervision have brought a suspected drug dealer to a fire house and are performing a “strip search” of the man. You enter the fire house and observe the officers in a side room with several fire house personnel including female fire fighters watching the “strip search”. Upon getting closer you observe the suspected drug dealer is handcuffed with his hands behind him. The man’s shirt has been removed, his trousers and underwear are down to his ankles exposing his genitalia and two officers are performing a “strip search” of his person. No prior authorization or approval of any type or form has been sought or granted by the department.

As a police sergeant how would you handle this situation?

As you can see this is quite different than a traditional oral board. Some tips are:

1. Unless otherwise directed greet the panel the same way you would if this was a traditional oral examination. Eye contact, shake hands, smile, etc.
2. Do not sit down. This is a presentation and you have command of the room.
3. If there is a chalk or white board in the room use then as part of your presentation.
4. Don’t turn your back on the panelists when presenting.
5. Ask for feedback as your speaking to insure understand has taken place.
6. Even though the directions indicate the panelist may not ask you any questions they will. Provide answers at the level that you are testing for remembering that organizational integrity always come before you or the employee.

Follow-up questions could range form those about positive, negative and progressive discipline; vicarious liability; department standards for “un-arresting” a person; remedial training; the chain of command; etc.

The Assessment Center

Many cities are now using “assessment centers” or “modified assessment centers” to test candidates for promotion. This is especially true of the higher ranks and I personally prefer this method of testing to traditional paper and pencil exams. An assessment center is a testing process in which candidates for promotion participate in a series of simulation’s which resemble what they might be called upon to do in the real world. As discussed in earlier articles, promotional testing is intended to predict whether (and to what degree) a candidate has the traits to become a successful police supervisor or manager. In an assessment center candidates are observed and evaluated by subject matter experts while participating in a series of systematic, job related, real-life situational or simulation exercises. Trained evaluators, called assessors, observe candidates, individually and in groups, performing exercises/scenario’s that simulate conditions and situations a police supervisor or manager would encounter in performing the job. The more the exercises reflect performance and behaviors that will be required on the job, the better the ability of the tests to predict later job behavior. It’s this attempt to simulate actual working conditions that separates assessment center testing from the academics of written exams and the subjectivity of oral tests. However, many police executives have serious reservations concerning assessment center testing and view the process as nothing more than a super oral exam.

What is an Assessment Center?

Assessment center testing was originally developed during World War II for use by the armed forces of Great Britain and the United States. The agents of the Office of Strategic Services knew that pure academic training and education were not adequately preparing their operatives for real-life situations in wartime. Their people scored well on academic tests, but sometimes didn’t perform well under pressure and were unable to apply academic principles to real people, places, and things. We face this same concern in police recruit and in-service training. For example, a recruit who scores a hundred percent on a written test on “felony stops” is killed in a simulation exercise when he stops a real car containing role players acting as felons. The OSS developed a series of situational tests that placed operatives into situations which required specific performance behaviors to successfully perform under the conditions they would face while on actual assignment. This combination of written curriculum with situational exercises produced superior personnel. In the private sector, American Telephone and Telegraph has been using assessment centers since 1956. In the past decade, many companies began using the process, not only for promotional testing, but also for selection, career development, and training. The use of situational testing techniques may be new to American policing, but it has been used by the police in England for many years. While the process still has many detractors, it is gaining support in police departments across the United States.

How Situational Exercises are Developed

The primary method of developing the simulated exercises (minitests) is similar to that used in constructing written promotional examinations-it begins with the completion of a job task analysis to identify the traits or dimensions characterizing successful performance of the job of police manager. The specific skills, behaviors, and characteristics critical to management in your police department must be determined. After these “critical work behaviors” are established, exercises are developed which evaluate whether a candidate has the traits required for successful job performance. In assessment center testing, these are known as “critical success factors or dimensions”. They are the criteria against which you will be evaluated and tested. Following are some of these dimensions. These will, of course, vary from city to city.


1. Technical and Professional Knowledge

Knowledge and understanding of the concepts associated with technical and professional police information. Includes knowledge of federal, state, and local laws; budgets and the budgetary process; rules and regulations, and procedures of the police department; labor contracts and personnel rules and procedures; information systems in police department and city government; investigative principles and procedures; and court decisions that relate to policing.

2. Oral Communication

Clear and effective oral expression of ideas to individuals and groups, includes body language, facial expressions, and gestures.

3. Written Communications

Clear and effective organization and presentation of concepts in writing. Includes style, vocabulary, grammar and format.

4. Meeting Management

Skill in meeting with individuals and groups to accomplish departmental objectives. Includes communication ability, group dynamics, and effective meeting-management techniques.

5. Organizational Integrity

Behavior that indicates active support for the objectives and standards of the police department. Includes willingness to accept and project the policies of the department as your own, ability to put personal feelings aside for the good of the organization, ability to maintain good media relations, ability to foster interpersonal cooperation, and the ability to maintain confidentiality.

6. Planning and Organizing

Ability to formulate a plan of action for self and others. Skill in determining how to accomplish a job task with finite resources and documentation of appropriate records.

7. Controlling

Inspecting, monitoring, evaluating, and correcting subordinates. Includes establishment of acceptable performance levels, application of corrective techniques, and skill in recognizing and working with an employee who has a personal problem.

8. Environmental Awareness

The gathering and use of information about situations and events inside and outside of the police to identify possible concerns and opportunities. Includes the recognition of potential crisis situations, the recognition of symptoms of good and bad morale, and the ability to adapt to change.

9. Judgment

Ability to develop a specific, goal oriented course of action based on information and observations. Includes analytical thinking, recognizing and understanding the underlying issues of a problem, problem solving skills, and the ability to make decisions and accept responsibility under pressure.

10. Professionalism

Specific behaviors, actions, and attitudes which display the highest standards of the police profession. Includes personal appearance, professional demeanor under stress, ability to display confidence, leadership and authority, ability to receive constructive criticism, and projecting a positive, professional image.

Career expert teaches how to prepare for and excel on police promotion examinations.