Police Psychology

Police psychology, the practice of psychology in police settings, has been part of American policing since the late 1960s and has traditionally been a clinical endeavor by clinical psychologists. Although many large police agencies and some medium-sized ones employ full-time clinical psychologists, most agencies contract for part-time work with clinical psychologists who often maintain separate private practices. The practice of psychology in police settings has also been a research, consultation, and training endeavor by psychologists who have backgrounds in, for instance, experimental, social, and industrial-organizational psychology. Therefore, generally, police psychology is a field of practice in which psychologists of different training investigate and apply psychological knowledge to police settings and problems. (Here, this does not include other law enforcement settings and professionals, such as sheriffs, marshals, or correctional officers, who at times perform job tasks similar to police officers.) Psychological services for the police have traditionally involved evaluating police applicants, educating and training police officers, evaluating job tasks and duties, and carrying out fitness-for-duty assessments.

Evaluating Police Applicants

Since the 1960s, organizations and commissions such as the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have recommended that police agencies evaluate the psychological fitness of police applicants. Today, most police agencies recognize and use a psychological evaluation as one part of the selection of police officers. Typically, licensed clinical psychologists carry out the evaluation. Some psychologists use a “select-in” evaluation strategy, whereby they look for applicants who demonstrate the qualities necessary to be successful on the job and recommend that police agencies accept them for law enforcement training. Other psychologists screen out applicants who demonstrate undesirable characteristics and recommend that police agencies no longer consider employing them. Many psychologists use both screen-out and select-in evaluation strategies, by which they screen out psychopathology and select in ideal police characteristics. Both focus on screening for suitable applicants. Evaluations typically involve administering a battery of psychological tests, carrying out a personal interview, giving situational tests, and making a selection recommendation.

Psychological test batteries administered by psychologists have included intelligence tests, personality tests, projective tests, and situational tests. Intelligence tests, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, measure applicants’ cognitive abilities. Scholarly research has linked intelligence tests with success on the job and in recruit training. Psychologists use personality tests to measure the relatively stable characteristics or traits of applicants. Commonly used tests are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), and the Inwald Personality Inventory (IPI). These tests are self-report, paper-and-pencil personality inventories. Research has shown empirical support for their usefulness in predicting what police applicants might say or do on the job—for example, being late or absent, using drugs, violating police procedures and rules, and using excessive force. Few psychologists continue to use projective tests, which ask applicants to respond to unstructured situations or stimuli, such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test. Less frequent among psychologists is the use of situational tests, in which police applicants engage a role-playing exercise usually representative of job-related work conditions. There has been little empirical evidence supporting the use of projective and situational tests in screening police applicants for law enforcement training.

Psychologists supplement test scores from a battery of psychological tests with information obtained from a personal interview, a common component of the psychological evaluation. Psychologists use a personal history questionnaire to gather information on applicants’ background (e.g., family, work, health, and any criminal behavior). Their interview, in part, usually involves a structured question format. Psychologists, however, often ask probing questions that follow up applicants’ responses and sometimes ask questions that their police agency clients request. Personal interviews with police applicants help psychologists interpret and validate test data sources.

Educating and Training Police Officers

The police have the responsibility to keep the peace, maintain order, enforce laws, and safeguard the well-being of the community. This kind of duty to act involves the possibility of danger all the time, puts police officers at risk, and requires education and training. Critical issues in police education and training to which psychologists have given considerable attention are negotiating hostage and barricaded-suspect (HBS) situations, handling people with mental illness, conducting criminal investigations, and managing job-related stress.

Negotiating Hostage and Barricaded-Suspect Situations

Most police agencies have and employ critical incident teams, sometimes called special response teams (SRT) or special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, to resolve or assist in resolving high-threat or special-threat conditions, such as HBS situations. Police use of critical incident teams has evolved since the highly publicized HBS situation during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. The first police approach to handling an HBS situation was an assault, which involved officers primarily using forceful options, often with lethal consequences for suspects. Sometimes, suspects’ family members subsequently took legal action against the police.

In the early 1970s, psychologists and sworn personnel developed verbal tactics as alternatives to the assault option. Such tactics focused on police officers extending incident time to de-escalate the situation and talking suspects into surrendering. Police records have shown that critical incidents teams successfully resolve most HBS situations without injury to participants when police officers negotiate verbally. When police agencies used clinical psychologists to negotiate such situations, the rate of success without injury to participants increased.

HBS negotiation training is available at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) academy in Quantico, Virginia. The FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit delivers training to all FBI negotiators and other law enforcement negotiators. There are also private companies that develop and deliver specialized training in negotiation skills. Trainers are usually experienced police negotiators who are sometimes psychologists. Police agencies that employ full-time clinical psychologists sometimes use them to educate and train their critical incident team negotiators and work at times with them to resolve, or assist in resolving, HBS calls for service. Negotiation activities primarily focus on containing suspects, negotiating with them, uncovering the personal factors motivating their behavior, and extending incident time, which gives suspects the opportunity to vent their emotions and make sensible decisions. Negotiation training typically emphasizes developing active listening skills through role-playing. Scholarly research on the effectiveness of negotiation training is in its infancy. A recent preliminary finding showed that FBI agents significantly improved their active listening skills following participation in the FBI’s National Crisis Negotiation Course. Generally, however, there is much research that needs to be done in order to evaluate the effectiveness of crisis negotiation training.

Handling People with Mental Illness

The police are having more contacts with people with mental illness. Researchers have estimated that between 5% and 10% of police-citizen contacts involve people with mental illness. Contacts often occur in the home, family members sometimes call for police services, and the police usually resolve calls without incident. Some researchers have suggested that the dismantling of state mental hospitals, the changing mentally ill population, the tightening of requirements for receiving mental health support, and the offering of limited psychological services are possible explanations.

The police are receiving education and training in the handling of people with mental illness. They recognize that mental illness is not a crime and that people having mental illness live in their communities, have professional vocations, and call for police services. The police also know that empirical investigations have found a link between mental illness and criminal behavior. For example, persons who suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to express antisocial behaviors that society criminalizes. Most mentally ill offenders are under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they commit crimes. There is some increased risk of mentally ill individuals becoming violent.

Although people who have a mental illness may commit a crime, be a victim of crime, or report a crime, police responses to encounters with them have improved with training. Police personnel, psychologists, and other mental health professionals have developed training curricula that includetopics such as symptomatology of mental conditions, nonarrest and arrest options, and community police responses. They have developed and made available model police policies for contacts with people with mental illness. These policies have helped police administrators standardize the nature of their departments’ response while giving the police flexibility to meet the needs of people with mental illness.

Conducting Criminal Investigations

Psychologists have studied the procedures and tactics used by the police in criminal investigations. They have produced psychological knowledge and have helped the police apply it to criminal investigation techniques such as eyewitness identification. For example, a police detective has a crime suspect and asks an eyewitness to identify him or her by viewing photos. The detective shows the eyewitness eight photos one at a time (sequentially) rather than all at the same time (simultaneously) to reduce the chances of misidentification caused by the eyewitness comparing photos and trying to decide which one looks most like the suspect. Chances of misidentification are less when the detective does not know the actual identity of the suspect, tells the eyewitness that the suspect’s photo may or may not be present, gives the eyewitness no feedback during or after the identification procedure, and asks the eyewitness about his or her level of confidence in the identification.

What psychologists have known about police interrogation tactics is that some of them lead to false confessions. For example, a police detective has a suspect of a crime and interrogates him or her for several hours. An interrogation is a stressful experience for the suspect. In a state of high stress, some suspects are highly suggestible and might come to believe that the accusations made by the detective are true. Other suspects may confess if the detective threatens punishment or makes promises during the interrogation— even if the suspect knows that he or she is innocent. In other cases, the desire for attention or fame, especially in a highly publicized crime, might motivate the suspect to confess despite having done nothing wrong.

Police detection of the lies told by suspects during interrogation has received considerable research attention by psychologists. The police know that uncontrollable physiological arousal often accompanies a suspect’s lying. For example, a police detective has a suspect of a crime and uses the polygraph technique (or device) in interrogation. The polygraph examiner asks the suspect several non-crime-related questions that generate emotional responses (e.g., about past behaviors) and several crime-related questions. Both provoke physiological responses, but the crime-related questions provoke more physiological responses than the non-crime-related (or control) ones, which suggests that the suspect is guilty. Most courts do not accept polygraph results as evidence. Psychological research has suggested that the rate of accurately detecting deception is low and the rate of false positives is high. The police, however, continue to use the technique with others and try to convince suspects that they cannot beat the device and that they should admit the fact of having committed a crime.

Hypnosis is another investigative technique available to the police. Usually psychologists, psychiatrists, or trained forensic hypnotists conduct interviews using hypnosis. They use the technique mostly to obtain information from eyewitnesses or victims and rarely to obtain information from suspects. There is little empirical evidence to support the belief that hypnosis elicits reliable memories.

Criminal profiling is a set of investigative techniques used to identify the characteristics of suspects most likely to have committed a crime. For example, a police detective analyzes a crime scene, investigates the personal history of the victim, considers motivating factors, links the nature of the crime with similar behaviors of criminals, and finally generates a hypothesis about the suspect’s sex, age, race, education, marital status, personality, and other personal characteristics. Specialized training in criminal profiling is available at the FBI Academy. Police profilers use behavioral science techniques along with other techniques of criminal investigation. They use criminal profiles to focus investigations in part on particular types of suspects while continuing investigative efforts on all possible suspects. How effective is criminal profiling? Some research suggests that professional profilers do better at extracting information from crimes and making predictions about suspects than do nonprofessionals.

Managing Job-Related Stress

Police stress is a reaction (or effect) caused by unfavorable physical, psychological, or social forces. Reactions may include physical, cognitive, behavioral, and affective changes in police behavior. Police stress may stem from law enforcement work, personal life, the criminal justice system, the police organization, or the public. Stress related to law enforcement work has received considerable research, training, and counseling attention, especially incidents involving force by and against the police, such as officer-involved shootings.

Police agencies are educating and training their officers to manage job-related tasks that can be stressful. Training curricula include recognizing stress reactions and learning skills to manage their potential harmful effects. Police agencies routinely provide their officers and families with information about job-related stress and mental health support. They establish peer support teams composed of officers and psychologists or other mental health professionals. Postincident debriefings are common following critical police incidents. They serve as an early crisis intervention effort, facilitate discussion with officers, assist in restoring normalcy in officers’ lives, and help police administrators identify officers who need professional mental health support. Peer support teams are usually part of the postincident debriefing.

Evaluating Job Tasks and Duties

Psychologists with training in industrial-organizational psychology have contributed mostly to the study of police officers at work. A job analysis determines what responsibilities the police have, what tasks they perform, what knowledge and skills they possess, and what results they achieve. Analysis methods primarily involve reviewing the literature on policing, reviewing departmental literature (e.g., operational manuals, rules and procedures, policies, and general orders), observing the police at work (e.g., ride-alongs and training), conducting interviews with police personnel, and administering survey questionnaires. This battery of techniques produces an exhaustive list of job duties, such as crime prevention and law enforcement, and job tasks, such as making arrests and writing reports. Police agencies use information from the job analysis to make informed decisions about organizational operations such as police selection and promotional procedures.

A job analysis is lengthy and expensive. It requires organizational cooperation and commitment at all levels; it validates pre-employment standards and selection procedures. The Americans with Disabilities Act puts police agencies on notice that they must link their pre-employment standards and selection procedures with job-related behaviors. Staying current and consistent with job analyses gives police agencies some protection against claims of discriminatory selection procedures.

Carrying Out Fitness-for-Duty Assessments

Police agencies have a responsibility to monitor the psychological fitness of their officers. They have a right to order psychological evaluations of officers who develop patterns of problematic job-related behaviors. Misconduct might take the form of abusing authority, using excessive force, misusing drugs and alcohol, and engaging in criminal behavior. Police agencies must collect and document information on the problem behaviors they wish to correct. Documentation might include performance evaluations, pre-employment psychological screening reports, disciplinary actions, medical or counseling records, and other types of relevant reports that support a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Officers who go through a fitness-for-duty evaluation must give written consent.

Only licensed or certified psychologists (or psychiatrists) who have clinical experience can carry out a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The police agency requesting the evaluation is the client and not the officer going through it. Large police departments that have in-house psychologists usually have them perform the evaluation. However, a dual relationship occurs when in-house or outside psychologists counsel or have counseled an officer whom the police agency refers for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Most police agencies contract with outside psychologists to avoid the conflicts that such dual relationships produce. Police departments must make every effort to avoid dual relationships.

The Psychological Services section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that psychologists have training and experience in psychological testing and police assessment techniques and that they have knowledge of police job-related functions and the legal issues surrounding employment practices. An assessment of job-related mental fitness usually involves reviewing background information, administering a battery of psychological tests, conducting a clinical interview, generating a report, and making recommendations. The scope of the assessment is breadth and depth of psychological fitness, with the aim of identifying the absence or presence of personal characteristics essential for performing job-related behaviors that the officer falls short of doing. Outcome recommendations first specify “fit” or “not fit.” Police chiefs or other police stakeholders (the client) may request additional recommendations, such as mental health counseling, remedial training, or other remedies.


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