By Yost Zakhary, Chief of Police, Woodway, Texas
n a sweltering late-August night in 1982, I was a young officer, barely 22 years old, with slightly more than a year on the job. My partner was an experienced field sergeant. Less than three hours into a routine shift, we received a call about a suspicious vehicle. I worked in a small, affluent community; though not commonplace, the call was hardly unusual. We found the vehicle parked on the side of the road. As we approached, a single male occupant could be seen lying face down inside. Suddenly, he turned and, without warning, began shooting. An intense gunfight ensued. When the smoke cleared, the suspect had been shot five times. Amazingly, neither the sergeant nor I had been physically injured, but the experience was indelibly etched into my mind and body.
Over the next several hours, days, and even weeks, an onslaught of questions flooded my brain. Would the shooting be ruled to have been in policy? What if I had not seen the gun when I did? What if my partner or I had been shot? After all, the suspect did get off the first round.
Why did some of the shooting seem like it was in slow motion, while other parts I could hardly recall? What if it happened again? I had been on the job only a year, and already I had used deadly force. What were all these emotions going on inside me? I had done the right thing; I responded as I had been trained to respond. Even though I knew this to be true, something didn’t feel right. I knew I would have to “make peace” with all of these thoughts and emotions if I was to remain a cop—and that was all I had ever wanted to be.
For police, times were different back then. There was no such thing as a “debriefing.” You worked it out yourself, or not at all. I know now that I was one of the lucky ones. My father was a psychiatrist by profession. Though neither trained nor experienced in police psychology, he was a very knowledgeable and compassionate man. At a time when police psychologists were still a rarity, he provided me the support and assistance I needed to sort through this experience.
Over the course of my career, as both a field officer and a supervisor, I would ultimately be involved in several more shootings as well as a host of other traumatic incidents too numerous to recount. As time has passed, police psychologists have gradually become more commonplace, and I have had the opportunity to benefit from their counsel. Now, as a chief responsible for the health and safety of my personnel, I have often recommended to my officers that they avail themselves of the counseling support that I have personally found so helpful.
But counseling is not the only service police psychologists provide. I frequently encounter situations where consulting with a fresh set of trained eyes and ears can go a long way toward identifying novel solutions to old problems. Recruitment and retention continue to be critical issues affecting the future of law enforcement. Every chief knows that a direct correlation exists between an agency’s preemployment screening standards and the number and severity of citizen complaints and personnel investigations. Numerous other factors also figure in that equation; ultimately, it is up to the chief executive to balance the relative costs and benefits given the practical needs of fielding an adequate number of trained personnel. What agencies sacrifice in preemployment screening, they must then commit to provide through training. This issue is just one of a whole range where I have found consultation with a police psychologist to be both informative and helpful.
The Police Psychological Services Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, created in 1984, began as a small group of licensed psychologists dedicated to providing psychological services to law enforcement. Today, the section consists of more than 160 licensed psychologists from 30 states as well as Canada and Australia, representing more than 80 law enforcement agencies. Over the last 23 years, the goal has remained the same: to advance the field of police psychological services through information and training for the IACP as well as mental health professionals interested in developing their skills in police psychology.
Police Psychological Services Section members are required to qualify for membership in the IACP and obtain sponsorship from an existing section member. Three letters of recommendation from top-level police administrators who have current knowledge of the applicant’s professional skills are also required. Section members have expertise in areas including assessment, intervention, consultation, and/or operations. Membership benefits both the agency and the individual police psychologist by ensuring availability of the latest information in this very specialized field.
The section is dedicated to providing psychological solutions to the challenges faced by police executives as well as promoting ethical and empirically based practices through educational and training opportunities. The section Web site, currently under renovation, will provide access to reference and resource materials on topics of significance to chief executives. The Police Psychological Services Section has promulgated guidelines on various topics, including preemployment psychological screening, fitness-for-duty evaluation, and officer-involved shooting protocols, just to name a few.
Each guideline is reviewed and updated at least every five years. Recently, the guideline for the Peer Support Program underwent revision to improve readability and to include greater emphasis on confidentiality and informed consent as well as to reemphasize the need for familiarity with departmental policies and state and federal laws.
The guidelines for consulting police psychologists were newly developed in response to the section’s increasing ventures into organizational consultation and indirect assessment. The guidelines state that psychologists are responsible not only to individuals but to society as a whole. Guidance is provided on issues of roles and boundaries, confidentiality, and privilege, as well as ethics and integrity. All of the guidelines may be accessed through the IACP Web site, www.theiacp.org, under the Police Psychological Services Section link. Anyone interested in the role of psychologists in law enforcement will benefit from paying a visit to the site.■