The pre-employment requirement of psychological evaluations may seem like a formidable blockade to prevent the wrong people from becoming police officers, but as it stands, there are currently many ways for applicants to slip through.
Pre-employment psychological evaluations are a well-known solution adopted by police departments to inhibit unfit applicants from being hired. These tests are a part of the larger effort to increase vigilance around granting officers the power to wield a weapon which can take someone's life away in the blink of an eye.
Over 90% of police departments in the United States demand that applicants pass a psychological evaluation, but most states permit local departments to determine the quality of the testing process.
The Cleveland police officer, Timothy Loehmann, who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, had several red flags pop up in his psychological evaluation. Dr. Thurston Cosner conducted the evaluation and noted in his report that Loehmann "...didn't appear to have much of an understanding of what the work entails" and "...[seemed] fairly rigid and perhaps [had] some dogmatic attitudes that could be problematic in police work.”
This year Tamir Rice would have turned 19 years old.
So, why was Officer Loehmann still hired?
Two main reasons why inept or dangerous police officers slip through this process are the pressures that police academies face to hire new officers and the absence of a standardized police psychological evaluation.
In 2018, the Police Executive Research Forum conducted a survey of almost 400 police departments that shed light on the drastic changes in police officer applicant pools over time. Two out of three police agencies surveyed cited declines in submitted applications over the past two decades. Because of the sharp decline in applicant numbers, it is much harder for agencies to find and hire quality candidates.
In a 2018-2019 survey, 73% of police and public safety psychologists said that candidate quality has “significantly decreased/deteriorated in the past five years.” A considerable number of applicants are now poorly or marginally suitable for the job, meaning they demonstrate traits during the evaluation procedure that may signal that they are unsuitable for service.
This puts a great deal of the responsibility of recommending that departments turn away candidates in the hands of psychologists. Between the written test and the interview, a psychologist is tasked with determining whether or not a couple of red flags are enough of an indication that the applicant may not be able to handle the stress, danger, and responsibility that are inherent to the line of duty.
Unfortunately, if psychologists notice issues with a particular candidate, there is a tendency to assume that it was a problem with the test or allow the psychological interview to explain the discrepancy. Flint Taylor, a civil rights defense attorney, stated that “the firms that [police departments] hire, at least in my experience, to do the screening, lean toward the cop being OK.”
There is a possibility that money plays some role in this phenomenon. Police departments provide psychologists with a steady stream of clients, and there is potential for unconscious or conscious bias in favor of applicants being suitable so as to not disturb police contracts. Each test costs police departments around $750-$1100, which can be a valuable source of income for psychologists.
Police departments in some states can go “shopping for [their] own psychologists” if they do not like the recommendation given by the original psychologist. This puts even more pressure on psychologists to not upset police departments with rejections or else they might risk losing business.
Besides the real-world pressures that both police departments and psychologists face, the other main problem is that the evaluation itself might be flawed.
Some psychologists are worried that something may be fundamentally wrong with the way that these psychological tests are designed. Neuropsychologist William Jamieson has expressed his concern that, in the past 35 years of him running these tests, he has only recommended a small number of police applicants be turned away.
So, what could be wrong with these tests?
Several police departments do not actually ensure that applicants complete what is considered a comprehensive evaluation. In New Hampshire, some police departments only require written psychological testing and not an interview due to high costs. However, both are necessary to provide a complete picture of a candidate’s fitness to serve.
The other problem is the validity scales within the wide variety of tests.
The Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) is one of the most common written tests administered to police applicants. This test includes hundreds of items requiring the test-taker to respond to how true a statement is of him or her. The PAI has advantages compared to other tests in identifying a wide range of psychological conditions.
Now, I want you to make a leap, perhaps a large one, and think about if you were applying to be a police officer.
How would you respond to statements, knowing what a model police officer looks like?
Would you be honest about your levels of aggression, depression, drug-use, or anxiety?
The answer for most police applicants is “no,” for many forsake honesty and exhibit high levels of positive impression management. This means the applicants actively present themselves as higher functioning and more stable than they may be in reality, denying any psychological symptoms. This exaggeration can mask the characteristics that may be undesirable in police candidates.
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) is another frequently used psychological test. It appears to be more effective than the PAI in controlling for the positive impression management that many candidates exhibit.
Psychologists and police departments, by proxy, have freedom to choose different tests with different baselines.
There is a desperate need for standardization of testing procedures with stronger controls for positive impression management. Without standardization, there is potential that police departments will continue to look for psychologists who use baselines that are beneficial to their hiring goals.
There are a few ways to create the strong blockade to becoming a police officer that we assume psychological testing to be.
First, psychologists need to use a standardized test with high controls for positive impression management. Having the same testing standards will alleviate some of the business-related pressures that psychologists may feel to approve candidates to prevent police departments from shopping around for more lenient testing requirements.
Second, police accreditation commissions need to make their standards for psychological evaluations more explicit to prevent police agencies from finding loopholes to save money or hire more officers. A lot of the current language in commission guidelines is vague and ripe for exploitation.
Finally, police departments should seriously take into consideration the recommendations of psychologists and continue to conduct evaluations of their officers after employment to prevent more unjust killings and improper conduct from officers. Just because an officer passes a pre-employment psychological evaluation does not mean that psychological conditions cannot develop over time and put other citizens at risk.
There is no doubt that policing in America is broken and, unfortunately, fixing psychological evaluations is not the key to solving it all. However, by starting to fix the small things, like these tests, there is potential to solve many of the other problems that continue to plague our communities.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.