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Rethinking our approach to police candidate selection

Starting with the right candidates is key to creating officers who embrace a culture of accountability


Positioning officers as civic leaders re-focuses the police-citizen paradigm by explicitly embracing a leadership model where officers view themselves as members of the community.

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This article originally appeared in the Police1 Digital Edition, “Police Performance: Developing a Culture of Accountability.” Download your copy here.

The wave of emotion following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, resulted in department policy changes, legislation and training mandates that are impacting law enforcement in significant ways. Police agencies must navigate the new parameters in a way that satisfies the community and ensures officers can consistently produce the outcomes expected from them. Doing this in a meaningful fashion requires a commitment to hiring the proper people and providing the proper training.

Identifying police officer tasks

The first step to understanding the qualities and characteristics a police officer requires to meet performance expectations is to define the role they are tasked to fill. A defined role allows a given community, or society more broadly, to hire and develop officers suited to performing the tasks inherent in that role.

Officers are often taught that they must be “in charge” of a situation and that resolving conflict or calls for service is incumbent on their ability to control a scene. While this can be true, officers are routinely put in a position where people view them as leaders because of the officers’ positional authority and perceived expertise.

Some officers view themselves much the same way and begin to act in a manner consistent with historical beliefs: their position of leadership is derived from their authority, where they must perform and they must win, and that there is a hierarchical relationship that places the officer above the citizen. [1] These beliefs can result in conflict, creating an environment of mistrust between law enforcement and the community they serve. Both the warrior and guardian approach to policing serves to magnify an already unequal power dynamic and create an emotional separation between officer and citizen.

Officers as civic leaders

Positioning officers as civic leaders re-focuses the police-citizen paradigm by explicitly embracing a leadership model where officers view themselves as members of the community – not apart from the community. Officer behaviors are focused on community problem solving and community members are viewed as integral components of that focus – as important and necessary for helping ensure the public good as the officers themselves. Notably, this requires compassion and empathy on the part of the officer.

The role of civic leader demands the officer to be both diplomat and warrior, a creative problem solver who is comfortable with violence or the threat of violence, who simultaneously works with and cares about the community – these are not mutually exclusive traits or beliefs. It must be understood, however, that the police should not answer every community call or be involved in every community member’s problem. If an issue does not rise to a level where force may be the answer, then the community must work to solve these issues themselves – although the officer can direct citizens to more appropriate resources.

The civic leader model minimizes the unequal power dynamic, creating the circumstances by which using positional authority as a coercive measure becomes less common and increases the community’s confidence in officer interactions.

Reviewing the selection process

Not everyone can be a surgeon. Mechanisms ensure only those doctors who meet certain criteria and are sufficiently qualified become or maintain their status as surgeons.

In the same way, not everyone can, or should, be a police officer. There are currently mechanisms in place that purport to control the quality of officer who is placed in the community, but they are often insufficient for finding the best candidates and undermined by valuing quantity over quality.

It is easy to dismiss the comparison between the abilities of a surgeon and police officer but look more carefully. Most people never need a surgeon, some have frequent need. Most people never need the police, some have frequent need. The performance by the surgeon or officer can have outstanding results or mild to deadly consequences. Either way, when one or the other is needed, people always want the best – the brightest, most compassionate and most skilled for the job.

The decision to hire someone is based on the belief that they possess the ability to successfully perform the job. It is a predictive process that is certainly not infallible. Police hiring is largely based on four factors:

  • Meeting initial qualifications;
  • Successful completion of an assessment (mental aptitude and physical fitness);
  • Successfully interviewing (usually a panel of department personnel);
  • Passing a background check.

The minimum criteria must be reviewed. Raising the minimum age to enter policing to 25 years of age would allow for the applicant’s brain to be more fully developed, potentially mediating impulsive behaviors that can cause negative policing outcomes. [2] It would also allow for the candidate to have some real-world experience outside of high school or college settings, providing heightened insights into the dynamics of commonly observed calls. More life experience translates into a better understanding of events and an officer’s ability to “make complex decisions based on uncertain or confusing information.” [3] This would be of great value to officers, especially newer officers.

[RELATED: How young is too young to be a police officer?]

Successful completion of a physical fitness test, mental aptitude test, and the completion of a background check and psychological profile provide some useful initial information. They do not provide sufficient insight into many of the most important attributes of outstanding police officers: creativity, resilience, compassion, the ability to assess situational demands and decision making. [4] More importantly, they do not identify how a person responds to stressful events – which drives all the other attributes. Combined with the reality that face-to-face interviews tend to be a poor predictor of future performance, an additional mechanism for finding those most suited to policing must be implemented. [5]

Evaluate temperament and aptitude

Law enforcement’s selection and assessment process should evaluate an individual’s temperament and aptitude before they attend a police academy. This process would be unlike a typical military-style boot camp approach or a high-stress police academy, which are designed – in part – to inoculate a person against interpersonal, internal and environmental stressors while simultaneously imparting knowledge, skills and abilities.

The selection and assessment program would be deliberately limited in scope, its purpose not skill development. Rather, it would be designed to analyze how a participant responds emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally within a stressful, deliberately ambiguous environment. This is particularly important because “By the time we’re adults, most anger, resentment, anxiety, and reactions to stress are conditioned responses.” [6] Identifying under what circumstances these responses are produced would be invaluable for selecting potential officers.

As important is how receptive a participant is to instruction and their learning capacity would be evaluated. Participants would be required to complete group and individual problem-solving tasks that would reveal individual traits, cognitive function and communication skills under a variety of constraints devised to induce stress.

If a person becomes irritable and short-tempered when they are tired or hungry, it would be good to know before a hiring decision is made and that irritability manifests itself as inappropriate police conduct. For example, most people know someone who is difficult to be around, who lashes out and shows diminished emotional control when they do not get enough sleep, miss a few meals, or are quick to anger when they feel slighted. These people tend to make rash decisions and engage in hostile interactions that might have dire consequences in a policing context. Even if an individual can refrain from exhibiting these behaviors in a public setting, they can manifest as behavioral problems within a department, which can become toxic over time. Both are to be avoided.

This type of selection program would benefit from a preselection tool that would measure an applicant’s psychological hardiness, such as the Dispositional Resilience Scale-15. [7] The test offers insights into a candidate’s ability to not only complete a demanding course, [8] but high measures of psychological hardiness appear “to be an important individual characteristic associated with stress tolerance and successful performance in highly demanding occupations.” [9]

Those who demonstrate the appropriate levels of desired qualities – intellect, discipline, sound decision-making, patience, compassion (measured as concern for others), resilience and teachability will be chosen to go to an academy or continue at an academy if the selection program is post-hire. A person can be taught strategies for navigating and resolving stressful events, it is harder to change the impact of a person’s temperament or preconditioned responses to stressors or change a person’s approach to decision-making processes. Adding a selection and assessment component to the current practices would ensure the best chance of finding officers who possess the proper qualities and temperaments to be successful.

If meaningful reform is truly wanted, then improving the quality of officers is paramount and a robust initial selection and assessment program that identifies candidates most likely to produce successful officers is necessary. Departments and communities would be better for it.


1. Chrislip D, Arensdorf J, Steffensmeier T, Tolar MH. Leadership in the civic arena. Leadership and the Humanities, 2016, 4(2), 126-142.

2. Brodwin E, Gould S. The age your brain matures at everything — it isn’t even fully developed until age 25. Business Insider, November 8, 2017.

3. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Past experience is invaluable for complex decision-making, brain research shows. Science Daily, May 15, 2009.

4. Jansen A, Melchers KG, Lievens F, et al. Situation assessment as an ignored factor in the behavioral consistency paradigm underlying the validity of personnel selection procedures. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2013, 98(2), 326-341.

5. Moore DA. How to improve the accuracy and reduce the cost of personnel selection. California Management Review, 2017, 60(1), 8-17.

6. Stosny S. Anger, anxiety, resentment, stress, and basic humanity. Psychology Today, August 4, 2017.

7. Bartone PT. Test-retest reliability of the dispositional resilience scale-15, a brief hardiness scale. Psychological Reports, 2007, 101(3), 943-944.

8. Soccorso CN, Picano JJ, Moncata SJ, Miller CD. Psychological hardiness predicts successful selection in a law enforcement special operations assessment and selection course. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 2019, 27(3), 291-295.

9. Bartone PT, Roland RR, Picano JJ, Williams TJ. Psychological hardiness predicts success in US Army special forces candidates. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 2008, 16(1), 78-81.

NEXT: Improving personnel performance through evaluations and training

Brian N. O’Donnell is a lieutenant with the City of Charlottesville, Virginia, Police Department. He served as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps and has served as a police officer with the Charlottesville police department for over 24 years. He has a B.A. in economics from Northwestern University and an M.S. in Criminal Justice from Liberty University. Lt. O’Donnell is a 2016 graduate of the University of Virginia’s National Criminal Justice Command College, earned the Advanced Specialist designation by the Force Science Institute in 2018, and became an IADLEST National Certified Instructor in 2020. Lt. O’Donnell is currently assigned to the Patrol Division as the 2nd Shift Commander.