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Back to Archives | Back to September 2003 Contents 

LAPD Bureau Psychologists Hit the Streets

Christopher Gelber, Ph.D., Police Psychologist, Los Angeles Police Department


hen Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant John Smith (not his real name) missed his second firearm qualification date in a two-month span after an exemplary record of 25 years of service, he announced to his fellow sergeants that he was probably just getting old and so had scheduled an appointment with the retirement counselor. In the watch commander's office with them that evening was a psychologist from the LAPD's Behavioral Science Services. In most departments, this would have signaled a problem, and most officers would have been uncomfortable with the psychologist's presence. But this time it was someone they knew well, a person they all called "Doc" and saw on a routine basis. He was one of the department's bureau psychologists, assigned specifically to that division, where he regularly participated in roll calls, meetings, training, and ride-alongs. Doc had been on numerous ride-alongs with Sergeant Smith, and so his ears pricked up at the news.

"Hey, sarge, I thought you still had a few more years in you! What happened?"

Sergeant Smith shrugged. "I guess I just can't keep up anymore. I seem to be forgetting things. I think it's just time to pull the pin."

The two had spoken extensively in the past, during ride-alongs together, about the sergeant's plans, enjoyment of his work, and desire to retire only after his son had gone to college. Sensing something was amiss, the psychologist maneuvered Sergeant Smith out into the parking lot and began asking more questions. Within 15 minutes, they were sitting in the captain's office formulating an emergency plan for his future well-being.

Making Police Psychologists Available and Accessible

The deployment into the field of eight bureau psychologists marks a new step in the LAPD's efforts to provide the most effective psychological services to the department's 9,100 sworn and 3,100 civilian employees. Since the program's inception in 2000, the bureau psychologists have taken on the mission of providing outreach, education, and consultation to local divisional commanding officers and their personnel. The program has received strong support from within the department and has demonstrated ways in which the traditional office-only based approach to police psychology has been less than optimal.

In the traditional model, police psychologists have worked out of their offices, responding to the field when necessary (typically for an emergency), and seeing personnel in a clinical setting. Their contact with officers is usually under circumstances where the officer has elected voluntary counseling or has been directed to counseling by the commanding officer. Most officers will never have contact with a department psychologist. In many ways, officers' experience with psychologists parallels the public's experience with the police; most contacts are made under times of duress, and the police psychologist can seem to officers as mysterious and even intimidating a figure as the police officer can seem to the public.

Just as some police departments have taken steps to encourage officer-citizen contacts by assigning officers to help particular neighborhoods solve problems, the LAPD has assigned psychologists to operational divisions. There they become integrated into the regular daily life of the police department. By participating in roll calls, supervisor meetings, ride-alongs, and other functions, the bureau psychologists become familiar faces, both less intimidating and more easily approachable.

Familiarity and ease of approach were both fundamental reasons why Sergeant Smith felt comfortable sharing his concerns with the psychologist he had come to know and trust. In that brief discussion he revealed, for the first time to anyone, that a softball-sized tumor had been detected on his lungs during a preventive body scan, and that, during the several months since that scan, he had been so paralyzed by fear that he had taken no action.

One of the principal problems police psychologists must struggle with in any agency is the stigma that prevents many officers from initiating contact with their department's psychological resources. Some are skeptical about the value of psychological services or fearful of its consequences (confidentiality is a paramount concern for officers). As a result, police officers and departments tend to underutilize their psychologists.

The opportunity to conduct interventions in the field with personnel who would otherwise have little or no contact with department psychologists is one of the strongest arguments for the LAPD's bureau psychologist program. In the past, psychologists have had to train sworn field personnel to recognize the signs of potential psychological problems and to take the appropriate action. Regrettably, this does not always happen, and many an overt psychological problem in the field has not been brought to the psychologists' attention in a timely manner, sometimes at a very great cost.

The bureau psychologist program is based on the premise that rapport develops between persons as familiarity increases. When officers and psychologists get to know one another, their stereotypes and fears recede as their mutual respect and understanding grow. Any bureau psychologist can recall officers who report that they would have been reluctant to step forward for help had the psychologist not been close at hand and safe to approach on an informal basis. Contacts are made in the hallways and parking lots of police stations, even in the front seat of a police car.

Once contact has been made, the opportunities for furtherance are unlimited. Bureau psychologists can refer officers to the department's clinical psychologists downtown or to outside professionals, including physicians and psychiatrists, as indicated. It is just as likely that an officer's problem may require just a little support or guidance, and the bureau psychologist can make a wide array of resources available to that officer.

The bureau psychologist's presence not only facilitates these interventions, it also makes the psychologist more available for contacts where an employee, in passing, will point out another employee who may be having difficulty ("Hey, doc, could you talk to Officer Jones?"). Understandably, many officers are reluctant to initiate action concerning another officer's personal problems, even though the signs are clear that they need help. By tipping off the psychologist to the struggling officer, they take immediate, targeted action without coming to the attention of supervisors or management.

Although deployment of psychologists into the field may seem like a luxury for most agencies, the sheer size of the LAPD requires innovative solutions if psychologists are to reach department personnel in a proactive manner. A bureau psychologist typically covers between three and six divisions, which means they will be in direct contact with between 1,000 and 2,500 employees. Although most of the department's eight bureau psychologists are assigned to patrol bureaus, several serve specialized and civilian divisions as well, such as the robbery and homicide, communications, records and identification, and scientific investigations divisions.

Expanding the Psychologist's Role

The activities of the bureau psychologists expand the traditional clinical psychologist's role into the broader functions of an organizational psychologist. The role of the I-O (industrial-organizational) psychologist places a greater emphasis on the management of the workplace, with the attendant issues of training, consultation, employee wellness, and development. I-O psychology significantly changes the nature of the psychologists' role with the people they serve. Although the traditional professional ethics code for psychologists discourages "dual relationships," contemporary revisions have recognized not only the inevitability but also the necessity of psychologists' working with both line officers and managers. Whether they are participating in supervisors' meetings or celebrating at promotional dinners, the bureau psychologists are viewed as an integral part of the division and must adapt to the multifaceted nature of their relationships with department personnel.

Bureau psychologists provide routine roll-call training in their divisions on subjects having to do with employee wellness, such as stress management, suicide prevention, substance abuse, blood pressure, and communicable diseases. When more extensive training is called for, the bureau psychologists work in concert with divisional training coordinators to provide full-curriculum classes, frequently approved for POST credits. In the last two years, bureau psychologists have participated in providing eight-hour continuing education training days on handling the mentally ill, rapid deployment in schools, and communication-based problem-solving skills.

Bureau psychologists have demonstrated effectiveness after critical incidents, as well. Many psychologists and mental health professionals will attest to the difficulties involved with leading a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) for groups of officers to whom they are a stranger. The bureau psychologist, by virtue of his or her familiarity and association with the division, is typically requested at CISDs by the officers and supervisors themselves as a valuable and safe member of the team, making the difficult work smoother and more effective.

One-on-one debriefings are similarly enhanced by the greater openness of officers with a psychologist they know and trust. The LAPD routinely debriefs and assesses all officers immediately following potentially lethal uses of force and critical incidents before returning them to field duty. The bureau psychologist frequently expedites and facilitates this work and is able to follow up with officers as necessary in the field.

Bureau psychologists are frequently called upon by divisional commanding officers to consult on various issues affecting the workgroup. Most of the time, these consultations focus on a personality-driven problem or conflict. Other times, the focus is on enhancing unit skills or advising on ways to make changes or improve the division. Bureau psychologists enjoy relaxed and comfortable relationships with the captains they serve and this familiarity allows the captains to utilize the psychologist's services in a maximally effective manner. Additionally, in light of the bureau psychologist's association with the division, the captain is more likely to include the psychologist in any situations that might benefit from a psychological perspective, a step they would not typically take if the psychologist was not already well known to them.

But, ultimately, it is the simple, informal, and relaxed contact officers and other personnel have with the bureau psychologists that allows them to develop a personal rapport and to break through the typical barriers they might otherwise face. It was the trust and friendship that had developed between Sergeant Smith and his bureau psychologist, before any clinical contact had ever been established, that eventually would help him to regain control over his life.

In Sergeant Smith's case, the bureau psychologist was able to (1) identify the signs that there was a serious problem that had escaped detection; (2) use his rapport with the sergeant to determine the root cause of the problem and press him into action; and (3) arrange for a meeting with the captain where an immediate action plan was formulated to get Sergeant Smith into the doctor's office and into surgery while arranging for relief and employee assistance resources. Sergeant Smith was successfully operated on, the tumor was removed, and after some much needed R-and-R, he was back to work with what he described as "an enormous weight off my shoulders."

Sergeant Smith's story is not typical. The daily activity of a bureau psychologist is not quite as exciting as a police officer's, and there is a lot less actual lifesaving. But in their own way, the bureau psychologists at the LAPD are reaching out to officers to help when and where help is needed, fighting psychological issues instead of crime, and making themselves visible and available for all calls for service.■

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From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 9, September 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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