History of Police Psychology

History of Police PsychologyThose who prefer a narrow definition of forensic psychology do not typically include police psychology in its purview. We have done so because police are sworn to uphold the law and are in many cases the gatekeepers to entry into criminal and juvenile courts, if not civil courts. Thus, psychologists who consult with police in numerous capacities (e.g., investigation, candidate screening, hostage-taking incidents, interviewing strategies) are connected with the legal system.

It is difficult to pinpoint precisely when police psychology began, primarily because individual psychologists have provided a variety of services to law enforcement without their work being formally recognized. Viteles (1929) noted that police departments in Germany used psychologists in a variety of capacities as early as 1919. In the United States, in keeping with the psychometric movement of the early 20th century, contributions centered around assessment, particularly cognitive assessment administered to candidates for law enforcement positions.

Four discernible but overlapping historical trends in American police psychology can be identified: (1) cognitive and aptitude screening, (2) personality assessment and the search for the “police personality,” (3) stress management and other clinical services, and (4) fairness in screening and selection (Bartol & Bartol, 2004). The first trend—1916 to 1960—is characterized by attempts of psychologists to assess the intellectual skills required to be an effective police officer. The second trend—1952 to 1975—focused on the development of personality measures capable of distinguishing effective from less effective officers. During the second trend, there also were many unsuccessful attempts to identify a “police personality.” The third trend—1974 to 1994—was characterized by psychologists becoming increasingly involved in the identification and treatment of stress and other emotional reactions often experienced by police officers and their loved ones. Such topics of interest included the use of excessive force, police decision making, post-shooting traumatic reaction, fitness for duty evaluations, and police suicide.

The fourth trend—1980 to the present—refers to the legal requirements that all persons should have an equal chance of being selected on the basis of individual merit and qualifications. Topics during this trend include the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, gender issues in policing, and minority/ethnic/racial composition of law enforcement agencies. Because this section focuses on early history, we briefly sketch only the first two trends. It should be noted, however, that police psychologists today are actively involved in consultation with law enforcement and with research in a variety of areas that reflect and transcend the above trends. Many belong to professional organizations, such as the APA’s Division 18, Psychologists in Public Service and its subgroup Police and Public Safety.

Return to overview of the History of Forensic Psychology.