The DNA of a great officer

Can the power of the genome reveal the police officer mind and foster no-brainer hiring decisions?


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Eric Litchfield

If you ask law enforcement officers and administrators about technological advances that will have future impacts, you will hear a list of cool devices and technology out of Popular Science and Hollywood movies. Autonomous vehicles and drones, less-lethal force technology, artificial intelligence running dispatch and records centers, body-worn camera advances, bionic suits and robotics.

There is no doubt law enforcement technology will advance in many of those areas. A less talked about and understood technology that might impact law enforcement, though, is the advancement of the human genome. Specifically, the genome as it relates to advances in understanding the human mind. Genome technology could be a powerful tool used to hire the most qualified police officers in the future.

In addition to possibly identifying the presence or absence of positive traits, genomic psychological testing might be able to identify the presence or absence of negative traits.
In addition to possibly identifying the presence or absence of positive traits, genomic psychological testing might be able to identify the presence or absence of negative traits. (Getty Images)

THE ROLE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING IN POLICE HIRING

The task of recruiting and hiring successful police officers is an ongoing challenge. News coverage of some police officers and their actions have affected public opinion of the profession and discouraged applicants. The proliferation of body-worn cameras and transparency legislation have made officers’ every action, decision and response available for public scrutiny and second-guessing. Increased instances of homicide against police officers and suicide among police officers, have made the job much more dangerous and less desirable compared to other professions.

Police departments were, until recently, competing with a strong economy that had created competition for qualified candidates in the private sector. Considering the current COVID-19 crisis, it would appear the economy may experience a significant downturn. During a weak economy, an abundance of applicants may be knocking on the agency's doors.

Those candidates who make it past the scrutiny of a background investigation become a precious commodity. When police departments have so few highly qualified candidates, it would be valuable to be able to assess and hire those that have the highest potential to be successful – those who will have the most effective interactions with the public.

The two most important and predictive steps of the hiring process are the background investigation and the psychological exam. Both methods look for information that would disqualify the candidate from serving the community as a police officer. The background investigation should show the candidate's knowledge and experience that qualifies them to serve as a police officer. The psychological exam is designed almost exclusively to test out or disqualify candidates who do not meet established psychological standards but provides little insight into those candidates who possess the best psychological profile to be successful, especially in the critical task of interacting with the public.

In the aftermath of racial protests and unrest in cities across the country in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to examine the events and offer recommendations for how to prevent additional instances. In 1968, the commission recommended the development of a test to eliminate police officer candidates who had personal prejudices, personality disorders and undesirable traits that would interfere with the proper administration of their duties. [1]

The most used tool to psychologically assess police officer candidates is the Rorschach and Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), designed to identify personality disorders and mental health problems. [2] The MMPI has become a vital tool in identifying and disqualifying candidates with a suspected undesirable personality disorder or mental health problems.

How accurate, though, is the MMPI? Can a candidate familiar with the test manipulate it? A simple Google search yields multiple websites and resources to teach a candidate how to "pass" or manipulate the MMPI and psychologist interview. There have been several research studies on the MMPI that have shown the test is reliable and hard to fool. Although difficult to do, a small percentage of people can "fake good" on the test and get a passing result. [3]

A person who has significant experience with counselors and psychologists, and who is adept at manipulation, could influence or "fool" the psychologist during the interview. There are many stories of police officers who were considered successful candidates who then went on to do terrible things, costing departments significant losses to not only their already tight budgets but depleting their public trust accounts.

Did these candidates somehow manipulate psychological testing, or did the psychologist simply miss some things through human error or omission? A candidate cannot, though, hide their DNA.

There may be a better tool that can both test out candidates based on their undesirable traits, and at the same time, test in candidates who possess desirable characteristics and abilities that will make them successful police officers. The human genome and the field of genomic psychology may be the tool to accomplish both. In addition to possibly identifying the presence or absence of positive traits, genomic psychological testing might be able to identify the presence or absence of negative traits.

THE SEARCH FOR BEHAVIOR AND PERSONALITY

In 1990, governments and private agencies around the world began mapping the human genome. By 2003, they had completed 99% of the mapping. [4] During the mapping project, researchers discovered that approximately 70% of all human genes manifest in the brain, making the genomic connection to psychology significant. [5] Psychology researchers recognized they could potentially identify genes related to mental disorders and personality traits, and then use those genes to predict behavior and treat mental illness. The field of genomic psychology emerged, and has advanced over the past decade based on these significant findings:

  • Identifying genetic variations related to personality;
  • Linking these variations to brain function;
  • Identifying interactions with environmental factors that affect mental health;
  • Identifying the neural and molecular correlates of these gene-environment interactions. [6]

Police officers with high levels of emotional intelligence and executive control tend to be best suited to have successful, positive interactions with the public. Personality traits related to high emotional intelligence include agreeableness, assertiveness, emotional toughness, self-discipline, tolerance, social sensitivity, integrity, flexibility and intellectual efficiency.[7] Genomic psychology has the potential to unlock the genome puzzle and provide police departments with a greater ability to identify candidates with these traits and thus the highest potential for success.

The hard science of the genome could tell the truth of what traits, positive or negative, candidates have embedded in their very being. Researchers have already identified genes associated with extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to new experiences. [8] A genomic psychologist could compare the DNA profile and present/absent characteristics against the MMPI and personal interview to possibly provide the most accurate, precise and scientific profile of the candidate.

Although genomic psychology has the potential to identify and test in highly qualified police candidates, it brings with it some serious implications for policing in the future. An implication that police departments will find attractive is that the ability to test-in candidates with the most desirable traits could result in fewer use of force incidents and increased community confidence in officers.

Research has shown that people with poor executive control are more likely to express racial bias and discrimination. [9] People with high emotional intelligence and executive control display high levels of empathy, patience, self-control, adaptability and problem-solving skills. [10] Police officers who can solve problems without a rush to judgment, minimizing the need to use force, create positive interactions and build public confidence, especially in minority communities.

With a decrease in the use of force and an increase in positive community engagement, police departments could expect to see a reduction in litigation and associated monetary losses. However, some questions and issues need to be answered and overcome before genomic psychology can be a reliable tool for hiring police officers.

HARD-WIRED OR INFLUENCED BY EXPERIENCE

A significant implication that complicates the research of genomes related to personality traits and behavior is the nature versus nurture debate. The nature debate argues that we are born with our personalities hard-wired and that our life experience changes our character very little. The nurture debate argues that our experiences are significant in forming our personalities and that our character is flexible and can change over time.

Researchers believe that our personality is influenced by a complex interaction between our DNA and our environment. According to the University of Maryland Professor Charles Stangor, "Personality is not determined by any single gene, but rather by the actions of many genes working together … Furthermore, even working together, genes are not so powerful that they can control or create our personality. Some genes tend to increase a given characteristic, and others work to decrease that same characteristic — the complex relationship among the various genes, as well as a variety of random factors, produces the outcome. Furthermore, genetic factors always work with environmental factors to create personality." [11]

Research, though, is still needed to understand the complicated relationship between genes and the environment before genomic psychologists can make informed and accurate predictions about behavior.

GETTING RELIABLE RESULTS

This complicated relationship between our genes and the environment can hold significant implications for the candidate and the employer. The failure of the genomic psychologist to fully understand and interpret it could lead to errors in the testing and hiring process.

Although genes have a role in determining personality and potentially influencing decision-making and behavior, there isn't enough research to definitively determine that the presence of certain genes will result in specific positive or negative traits and behaviors.

Over the past 20 years, there have been significant advances in understanding the role genetics play in behavior, but there is still a lot that is not known. Researchers have not reached a conclusion or consensus on when or how this debate will be resolved. Most feel it will be a research topic that will provide increasingly accurate information over time, "To summarize, the debate concerned with the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either nature (inherited i.e., genetic), nurture (acquired i.e., learned), or their interaction is endless … There are simply too many ‘facts’ on both sides of the argument which are inconsistent with an ‘all or none’ view." [12]

Researchers need to determine how genes work together and how they are influenced by the different environments people experience to form their unique personalities. Differences include “variability in brain structure, nutrition, education, upbringing, and even interactions among the genes themselves." [11]

Even when enough research exists, the background investigation, MMPI and psychologist interview still will play critical roles in determining the type of environment experienced by candidates, and how that influenced their personality and behavior. Once the nature versus nurture relationship is well understood, and genomic psychology takes another significant leap forward, the next step likely would be educating police administrators that genome profiling would not produce a clone-like workforce.

THE INVASION OF THE "COOKIE CUTTER" COP

I convened two panels in March 2018 and December 2019 to discuss using genomic psychology in police hiring. One panel consisted of non-law enforcement professionals from the community and the other panel comprised police department command staff. Both panels were concerned that using a genomic profile to hire police officers could result in "cookie-cutter" cops. They worried that using genome profiles would sacrifice individuality, diverse experience, diverse thinking, creativity and racial diversity – filling police departments across the nation with robots who all looked, thought and acted alike.

Nature versus nurture research has already shown that sharing the same set of genomes does not equate to sharing the same personality. Environment and experience play a role in determining how genes interact to form personality and influence behavior. It would appear unlikely that genomic psychologists will be able to predict behavior and character so precisely as to create an army of clone police officers.

Many would argue that the current testing process already tends to select individuals who share many of the same personality traits, backgrounds, and racial and cultural demographics. We often hear complaints today about the lack of diversity in police ranks. The MMPI has been criticized for its inability to evaluate the job performance of a police officer and for relying on data from police officer groups that already underrepresent women and minorities. [13]

Genetic testing, however, is blind to race, "Neither race nor ethnicity is detectable in the human genome … Genetic tests cannot be used to verify or determine race or ethnicity." [14] When used as a tool in the testing process, genomic psychology would add another dimension and additional options to be considered for selecting the best candidates.

Until genomic psychologists become part of hiring and data is collected, though, their possible impact on the hiring process will remain speculative. The individual's right to genetic privacy will be another significant hurdle to overcome before genomic psychologists can be part of the hiring process.

THE CONFLICT OF GENETICS AND PRIVACY

One implication that has been brought up by researchers, panelists, unions and civil rights advocates is the right to privacy. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 prohibits the use of genetic information in making employment decisions at any stage of the hiring process. Changes to GINA would be required to allow genetic testing in the hiring process.

Considering the advances in genome research and potential since GINA became law 12 years ago, it would be reasonable to assume the legislature will revisit and adjust the law. Any changes would have to balance the public interest in testing police officer candidates to identify the most mentally stable and well-suited candidates against the privacy interest of the individual.

Employing a scientific tool that could increase public trust, decrease use of force incidents, decrease liability, and decrease discrimination and bias in the criminal justice system would be an attractive option for police departments. Police officer candidates already waive a tremendous amount of privacy during the hiring process. The legislature might not find it unreasonable to allow one more waiver if the benefits were in the public interest.

Law enforcement agencies and public safety unions need to keep a watchful eye on privacy legislation related to genome research and use. As technology continues to advance, it seems likely that there will be a desire to revisit prohibitions on using genetics in hiring.

Powerful special interest groups and lobbyists for insurance and health care companies may also begin to push the issue of using the technology to predict and prevent a variety of conditions. Law enforcement special interest groups need to have a seat at the table if the legislature considers changing or expanding these laws regarding how employers can use the information.

CONCLUSION

Law enforcement agencies need to assume that the human genome will play some future role in hiring police officers. The potential benefits that genome and genomic psychology hold for the future of police hiring are too promising to be ignored.

Although researchers may need several more years to identify specific genes and to answer complex questions such as the relationships between genes and the environment, advances in those areas are happening quickly as research pools grow and technology brings the cost down. Once research answers those questions, the confidence in using genome testing in hiring will become a critical issue.

There is no person more directly responsible for maintaining the trust and confidence of the community than the frontline police officer working in the community every day. Identifying and hiring the right people for the job is an important and crucial decision. Having a powerful scientific tool available for making the right decision is something law enforcement agencies will have to consider, and the public will certainly consider. Law enforcement administrators need to understand and prepare for genetic science and the role it will play in the future of police hiring.

NEXT: Developing an evidence-based police recruitment video

References

1. Murphy JJ. (1972). Current practices in the use of psychological testing by police agencies. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, 63(4), 570-576.

2. Framingham J. (2016). Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).

3. Paola R, et al. (2018). Could Time Detect a Faking-Good Attitude? A Study with the MMPI-2-RF.

4. The Human Genome Project FAQ. (2020).

5. Hariri A, Weinberger D. (March 2003). Imaging Genomics. British Medical Bulletin, 65(1), 259-270.

6. Canli T. (2007). The emergence of genomic psychology.

7. Spilberg SW, Corey DM. (2017). Peace Officer Psychological Screening Manual. Sacramento, CA: California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

8. Nield D. (2016). Scientists Have Found Genetic Links Between Personality Traits and Psychiatric Diseases.

9. Weir, K. (2016, December 2016). Policing in Black and White. American Psychological Association, 47(11), 1-6. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/12/cover-policing.aspx

10. Conners CD. (2018). The 10 Qualities of an Emotionally Intelligent Person.

11. Stangor C, Walinga J. (2014). Introduction to Psychology, 1st Canadian Edition.

12. Zaky EA. (2015). Nature, Nurture, and Human Behavior; An Endless Debate.

13. Dantzker ML. (2011). Psychological Preemployment Screening for Police Candidates: Seeking Consistency if Not Standardization. American Psychological Association, 42(3), 276-283.

 14. Blakemore E. (2019). Race and Ethnicity: How are they different?

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