By Jocelyn Roland, PhD, ABPP, Chair, IACP Police Psychological Services Section; Robin L. Greene, PhD, Occupational Psychologist, City of Los Angeles, California; Gary Hampton, Chief of Police, Tracy, California, Police Department; and Richard Wihera, PsyD, ABPP, Police Psychologist
ecruitment of a quality workforce takes an enormous amount of time, effort, and expense. A smart approach to this process in law enforcement includes multiple information sources that ultimately coalesce, providing the hiring authority with the best candidates for final appointment. While this occurs at the tail end of the process due to legal requirements, pre-employment psychological evaluation (PEPE) is one of the myriad tools an agency can, and in many states must, use as part of the hiring process. PEPEs can reduce the risk of negligent hiring, help screen out applicants with undesirable psychological traits, assist chiefs in identifying applicants who meet the unique needs of their agency and community, and facilitate the development of a relationship with a qualified mental health provider (QMHP) who may ultimately provide other important psychological services (e.g., crisis intervention and debriefing, fitness-for-duty evaluations, confidential counseling, training, and consultation).
Reducing the Risk in the Selection Process
Law enforcement chiefs and organizations are in continual pursuit of the perfect peace officer candidate to serve their respective communities. A desirable candidate is one who is assertive and decisive, yet compassionate and empathic. This individual is level headed, a strong communicator, emotionally stable, courageous under pressure, and most important, is one whose ethics are above reproach. If used correctly, a lawful and properly conducted PEPE may become one of the most effective methods the hiring authority has for identifying the presence of these desired personality traits.
PEPE can help identify an applicant’s capacity for the multitude of tasks required by peace officers in the course of their employment. Law enforcement employees are tasked with juggling the complexity of human behavior while integrating the demands of new technology and adhering to ever-changing regulations and policies. At most agencies, officers have the responsibility and power to make discretionary life-or-death decisions from their very first day of work. Through the pre-employment process, evaluators provide police executives with a source of invaluable data for gauging job-relevant risk factors and psychological suitability.
The various components that may be used in PEPEs (e.g., face-to-face interviews, psychological test batteries, review of background findings, academic profiles, and medical records) offer a broad approach to assessing job suitability. Job-relevant mental or emotional conditions that would reasonably be expected to interfere with safe and effective job performance may also be evaluated.
Assessing resiliency is an important component to fostering the foundation of organizational health and well-being for any police agency. Law enforcement personnel will likely encounter frequent exposure to calls for service involving graphic homicide or suicide scenes, child or elder abuse, domestic violence, traffic fatalities, missing children, and distraught citizens. Opposite these emotionally volatile and taxing situations are hours of boredom with the more “routine” events of the job, or fulfilling lengthy bureaucratic requirements, such as spending an entire shift processing a single domestic violence incident involving placement of children or elderly family members. Evaluating tolerance to stress, emotional regulation, and coping strategies to handle these seemingly polar opposite demands of the peace officer helps to minimize employment risk and supports the overall public safety mission.
Diversity appreciation is another important pre-screening factor for molding and maintaining a healthy workforce. Respect for others is paramount within the workforce to foster morale among coworkers, instill respect toward superiors, mediate conflicts with members of the general public, and ensure appropriate conduct with detainees under the color of authority. Public safety enforcement requires daily encounters with a broad range of persons, and, often, newly hired personnel may have minimal knowledge about their specialized needs. Peace officers need to approach each situation with an open mind to community concerns while balancing tactical awareness and officer safety. Job applicants who can articulate past experiences with diverse populations and demonstrate an understanding of, and value for, different beliefs and perspectives are more likely to cultivate positive relationships with citizens within their serviced communities. The ability to maintain neutrality by withholding bias and strong opinions is critical. Along these lines, evaluators usually assess social competence and communication skills, ensuring that candidates possess inherent assertiveness, command presence, conflict mediation ability, and the capacity to compromise appropriately. These skills serve as an important foundation for quality community rapport and healthy interactions with coworkers and supervisors.
Psychological evaluation can help police executives manage the potential risks associated with negligent hiring by screening out applicants who indicate counterproductive traits or characteristics. Utilizing empirical research findings and case law, clinical expertise regarding law enforcement duties, and sophisticated testing processes, qualified mental health professionals can evaluate for concerns such as disaffiliation; cynicism; lack of initiative; and maladaptive coping responses to stress including poor decision-making, substance use or abuse, and aggression. When the hiring authority is forearmed with the additional criteria gleaned from psychological evaluations, it can take an important first step toward maintaining public confidence and quality morale in the workforce while making strides to avoid high-profile incidents involving corruption, civil rights abuses, or misconduct.
Aiding Decision Making with Sound Psychological Assessments
|Victoria, Australia, Police Maximizes Its Recruitment Message through Multiple Platforms|
The Victoria Police is a large agency employing more than 15,761 people in service to the 5.6 million residents in the southwestern Australian state.
The Victoria Police has an active social media presence across multiple technological platforms and service areas, and the agency uses social media to communicate with residents in a way that is transparent and engaging. Victoria Police regularly uses Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for agency-wide news coverage. They also maintain a separate Facebook page specifically for recruitment. The Victoria Police Recruitment page is hugely popular, with more than 34,000 followers. Content is posted nearly every day, and there is strong interaction with followers through “likes” and comments about the posts. Posts include information about recruitment events, updates on squad intakes, officer stories, department trivia, tips for applicants, and more. Some posts from the recruitment Facebook page are shared on the main Victoria Police Service Facebook page, expanding its reach to the main page’s 68,000 followers. Through a tab on the recruitment Facebook page, Victoria police offers an interactive challenge that allows prospective candidates to watch video of a typical night in the life of a protective service officer. The challenge presents questions about the video that keeps participants engaged and helps them gauge their suitability for the career.
Victoria Police offers further opportunities for engagement through online chats with the public on a variety of topics, including recruitment. Using a program called Converlative, participants submit their questions in real time and get answers from Victoria Police staff members. The chats are archived on the Victoria Police website for future viewing. The accessible format offers a more informal way for candidates to interact with recruitment staff in a forum that is familiar to them.
Follow the Victoria Police on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/victoriapolice or on Twitter, @VictoriaPolice.
Identifying the appropriate QMHP to conduct the evaluation is critical to the overall effectiveness of the PEPE as a preemployment screening tool. The police chief must be personally involved with the selection of the QMHP, and thereafter develop a level of familiarity and comfort that transcends the usual consultant and police chief relationship. This agent in developing the workforce must be aware of the police chief’s personal values, which serve as the lens for many of the chief’s decisions. It is critical that the evaluator knows the core values of the organization and understands the vision to be realized, as well as the general and specific mission of the law enforcement agency. While it is not suggested that the suitability standard by which a candidate is evaluated be dependent on the specific agency, it is imperative that the QMHP understands the environment and expectations of the agency where the candidate is pursuing employment. The agency’s core values, which are reflective of the community they serve, should not be in conflict with the candidate’s personality traits. Without this valuable hiring tool, considerable time, energy, and resources may be expended on a candidate who may not successfully “fit” the law enforcement agency or the community being serviced.
In addition to assessing specific personality traits, the psychological screening process serves to evaluate the mental health of a peace officer candidate, ensuring psychological health and preparedness to endure the rigorous emotional rollercoaster of the profession. A day in the life of a police officer can be emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing. There are days when an officer is forced to stand firm on a decision, yet be polite, even in the face of tremendous public scrutiny. As noted above, this is a job where the sudden transition from monotonous paperwork to the sheer terror of saving or defending a life (occasionally one’s own) can occur within minutes. Candidates must be resilient to the impact of this stressful emotional rise and fall, which can occur repeatedly during a single work shift. This stress cycle can easily result in mental tension or mood impairment, such as depression or anxiety. These mental states are associated with diminished productivity, increased absenteeism, workers’ compensation claims, and even suicide. One of the core responsibilities of every police chief is to ensure the safe return of each officer to his or her family at the end of every work shift. If the chief develops a solid partnership with the QMHP, this responsibility can be productively shared through the ongoing relationship that develops between the chief of police and the evaluator.
Using Best Practices in the PEPE Process as a Means to an End
While the legal and organizational benefits of pre-employment screening are evident, putting the PEPE process into practice can pose difficult questions for the police administrator. As occurs in many professions, reasonable minds can differ about how to proceed with a complex matter. Evaluators are not immune to this issue, and thus, an agency can get various well-reasoned opinions about how psychological assessments should be conducted and how to incorporate psychological testing into the overall selection process.
To help determine how to construct the psychological assessment process, the IACP offers an excellent resource in the “Pre-Employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines,” produced by the Police Psychological Services Section (PPSS) and ratified by the Executive Board of the IACP. Originally developed in 1986, these guidelines have been reviewed and revised approximately every five years to ensure they are current with the standards of practice and applicable laws.1 The current PEPE Guidelines represent the collective guidance from over 200 psychologists who are members of the IACP-PPSS, and cover significant aspects of the PEPE process, such as the following:
- Examiner Qualifications
- Job Analysis
- Disclosures to the Applicants
- Psychological Testing
- Use of Background Information
- Use of the Evaluation
- Follow-up on Hiring Decisions
- Appeals and Second Opinions
The guidelines provide information regarding the primary issues to be considered when developing PEPE procedures, yet it is specifically noted that the guidelines “are not intended to establish a rigid standard of practice for pre-employment psychological evaluations. Instead, they are intended to reflect the commonly accepted practices of PPSS members and the agencies they serve.”
The guidelines can be helpful in several ways. Some agencies have referenced the PEPE Guidelines in requests for proposals (RFPs), asking that any proposals submitted specify in what ways, if any, the proposed process varies from the guidelines. The guidelines can also be used by administrators to make systematic inquiries of the providers to make certain they are comparing “apples to apples.” This guiding document can also provide law enforcement agencies with a national model of professionally accepted practices to use as a defense in the face of any legal challenges to their selection procedures, another way in which a chief can work towards reducing risk and liability. The PEPE Guidelines were last revised in 2009 and are currently in the process of revision for 2014. A committee of 19 PPSS members representing 11 states has been established. It is expected that the revised guidelines will be presented for ratification by section members at the annual IACP conference in Orlando in October 2014 and, if accepted, offered to the IACP Executive Board for final ratification in early 2015.
Another essential reference in establishing a PEPE process is the adherence to individual state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) guidelines or regulations, when required. There are variable state mandates, with some providing very generic guidelines and others dictating specifics in method. From a psychological perspective, the “Peace Officer Psychological Screening Dimensions” offered by California’s Commission on POST are an example of very specific information for the QMHP to measure and assess.2 Whereas the IACP Guidelines essentially provide guidance on “how” to conduct the PEPE process, the California POST Screening Dimensions offer direction on “what” is to be measured. The California POST Dimensions were empirically derived, and specify the psychological “dimensions” to be evaluated, as well as identifying both the positive and counterproductive behaviors associated with each dimension. The 10 psychological screening dimensions suggested by California’s Commission on POST follow:
- Social Competence
- Impulse Control/Attention to Safety
- Emotional Regulation/Stress Tolerance
- Decision Making/Judgment
- Avoiding Substance Abuse and Other
While this model is broadly used because of its scientific and empirical derivation, it is not the only one available, and, of course, it will not apply in all jurisdictions. Ultimately, the key to agency success in utilizing PEPEs is the QMHP and hiring authority working together to establish a common framework in determining which characteristics are important in the applicants being assessed and whether they are screening out individuals with problematic traits and behaviors or screening in those possessing the desired qualities.
The fact of the matter is that not everyone is cut out for a career as a peace officer, and it takes a close working relationship, a partnership if you will, between a police chief and the evaluator to identify those best suited for the career. An effective police force requires a variety of types of people with different personalities, behavioral styles, skill sets, and cultural perspectives. Similarly, there are desired qualities for effective peace officer functioning, such as identified by the California POST 10. Conversely, there are certain traits that are not conducive to the peace officer role, such as being judgmental, impatient, or lacking interpersonal communication and connection skills, to name just a few. Pre-employment psychological screening is one of the hiring authority’s tools for identifying such undesirable qualities, which in the long run helps to build a mentally strong, stress-tolerant, and flexible workforce capable of meeting the multiple demands of the law enforcement mission. Peace officer suitability is determined through the collective effort and partnership of the police chief and a vetted mental health professional, a collaboration that, when properly developed and nurtured, can transcend the hiring process to ensure the long-term success of the agency and of each new police officer brought into the fold. ♦
1“Pre-Employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines,” ratified by IACP Police Psychological Services Section (Denver, Colorado: IACP, 2009), http://www.theiacp.org/portals/0/documents/pdfs/Psych-PreemploymentPsychEval.pdf (accessed February 7, 2014).
2“Peace Officer Psychological Screening Dimensions,” California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, http://lib.post.ca.gov/Publications/psychological-traits.pdf (accessed February 7, 2014).
Please cite as:
Jocelyn Roland, Robin L. Greene, Gary Hampton, and Richard Wihera, “Building a Better Workforce Through the Use of Pre-Employment Psychological Evaluations,” The Police Chief 81 (March 2014): 48–51.