Police selection is a process by which police agencies decide on which applicants are suitable for law enforcement training. The application of psychology to the selection of police officers has long been a part of the process, usually in the form of a psychological evaluation performed by a licensed clinical psychologist. The evaluation typically involves considering a selection strategy, administering a battery of psychological tests, carrying out a personal interview, giving situational tests, and making a selection recommendation.
Police Selection Strategy
“Selecting-in” police applicants who demonstrate the qualities necessary to be successful on the job is one strategy some psychologists use to evaluate applicants’ suitability for law enforcement training. A job-task analysis, usually performed by industrial-organizational psychologists, is one way psychologists obtain select-in information about necessary job skills and traits to perform them. The evolving nature of policing, however, can lead to selecting in applicants who have “no-longer-needed skills” and traits to perform the job well. Though some psychologists use select-in criteria to accept police applicants, there is a lack of consensus among police and community stakeholders on the qualities needed to be successful in the police profession. There is more agreement on the unwanted qualities of police applicants.
In practice, the selection of suitable police applicants often involves screening out those applicants who demonstrate undesirable police characteristics. Psychologists are concerned with mental stability because an unstable officer, not surprisingly, is more likely to perform poorly on the job than a stable one. Empirical evidence suggesting that a screening-out focus best predicts which candidates are more likely to experience on-the-job difficulties falls short of being consistent.
Today, many psychologists use an evaluation strategy that screens out psychopathology and selects in ideal police characteristics. Their select-in and screen-out procedures must (a) adhere to ethical principles and standards of practice, (b) focus on applicants’ ability to perform necessary job functions, (c) avoid clinical diagnoses, and (d) use objective and validated tests that specify what police functions they intend to measure. Psychologists must carry out select-in and screen-out procedures that include evaluations of mental health in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and only after a conditional offer of employment to the police applicant. Prior to conditional offers, psychologists can use personality tests and other methods that do not include evaluations of mental health. Both conditional- and preconditional-offer psychological evaluations, however, focus on screening for suitable applicants.
Psychological Tests in Police Selection Process
The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), and the Inwald Personality Inventory (IPI) are the psychological tests commonly used for screening police applicants. The MMPI and the CPI are general self-report, paper-and-pencil, personality inventories used to assess the relatively stable characteristics of applicants. They tap a number of dimensions thought to make up a police applicant’s personality, which can affect his or her on-the-job performance. The MMPI is a clinical instrument designed to measure dimensions of deviant personality and maladaptive behavior. It is composed of 550 true-or-false items. Above-average scale scores suggest a greater probability of having job performance problems. Some empirical support has linked MMPI scores with police performance ratings and disciplinary actions such as termination and suspension from duty. Authors have updated and restandardized the original MMPI; its current version is the MMPI-2.
The CPI is a nonclinical instrument designed to measure normal personality traits important for social living and interaction. Test takers complete 480 true-false questions. Empirical studies have found that below-average scale scores increase the chances of police applicants having job-related problems such as using illegal drugs, using excessive force, and violating other department rules and procedures. The authors of the MMPI and the author of the CPI did not design the instruments to screen police applicants. There are, however, police and public safety reports available for both the MMPI and the CPI.
In contrast to the MMPI and CPI, the IPI, designed to screen police applicants, predicts normal and deviant police job performance patterns of test takers. It is a self-report, paper-and-pencil questionnaire, which consists of 310 true-or-false items developed from more than 2,000 preemployment interviews with law enforcement candidates. Test scales measure behaviors such as absenteeism, lateness, trouble with the law, depression, suspiciousness, and anxiety. Research has shown an association between above-average IPI scale scores and negative behaviors by police recruits, such as lateness, absenteeism, and dereliction of duty during academy training.
Besides the MMPI, CPI, and IPI, psychologists have used other psychological tests, such as the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, Eysenck Personality Questionnaire, Five Factor Personality Test, and Hilson Safety/Security Risk Inventory. Psychologists usually couple personality tests with cognitive ability tests such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, which have some empirical support for predicting on-the-job and police academy performance. Some psychologists also use projective tests that ask applicants to respond to unstructured stimuli or situations, such as completing a series of unfinished sentences or describing a set of inkblots; however, the use of projective tests in the selection of police officers has declined.
Psychological tests capture a sample of the police applicant’s behaviors. Psychologists generally administer multiple tests, sometimes three or four. The diagnostic value of these tests is to forecast what the applicant might say or do under police work conditions. Research has linked personality test data from the MMPI, CPI, and IPI with police job-related problems and success. However, not all psychologically suitable police applicants are free from job-related problems. Poor work performance might be an artifact of attitudes and belief systems that develop after selection. Police experience and effects of the occupational culture might lead to job-related problems not predicted by applicants’ psychological profiles. Situational factors might interact with personal factors to determine some inappropriate job behaviors. In short, psychological test responses, in part, help select in and screen out police applicants, but applicants might lean toward making favorable impressions in an effort to appear well suited for police work. Psychological tests together with personal interviews and situational tests round out the selection of suitable police applicants for law enforcement training and work.
Personal Interview in Police Selection Process
Personal interviews are a common selection component of psychological evaluations. Psychologists use police applicants’ interview performance to supplement their psychological test scores. They usually gather background information obtained from a personal history questionnaire, which includes questions about work, family, health, and criminal behavior. Sometimes, police agencies supply psychologists with applicants’ background investigation reports. Such reports help psychologists check applicants’ psychological test data.
Interviews can involve asking standardized questions, while allowing psychologists to probe the responses of police applicants. Standardized interviews let psychologists compare applicants and check cross-interviewer reliability. The interview process can expose personal characteristics not revealed by self-report questionnaires; for example, the applicant’s body language during the interview may show anxiety or tension. Sometimes, psychologists ask questions requested by their police clients who have uncovered personal characteristics of applicants that are suspect. Personal interviews, when used with psychological tests, help interpret test data and help answer the complex question, Who is a suitable applicant?
Situational Tests in Police Selection Process
Psychologists have used situational tests or role-playing exercises designed to measure a sample of behaviors the police applicant might use on the job. Situational tests are usually representative of job-related work conditions. Some preliminary empirical evidence supports the use of situational tests in the selection of police officers. For example, police applicants who performed well on a “Clues Test,” which asked them to investigate clues about the disappearance of a hypothetical employee, also performed well during their recruit training.
Situational tests have a practical appeal. Advanced computer technology allows police trainers to administer situational training and tests to incumbent officers. For example, an interactive computer simulation asks police officers how they would respond to different suspect behaviors directed toward them during an arrest. Officers make decisions, and trainers evaluate them.
Police psychologists appear to be slow at developing situational tests and using computer technology to administer them as part of the selection process. Law enforcement assessment centers, however, are typically private agencies that have a history of using situational tests to evaluate incumbent officers and sometimes police applicants. Situational tests make possible the observation of hidden values that only appear under conditions that require quick decisions. With situational tests, psychologists can measure behaviors deliberately concealed from pencil-and-paper tests and personal interviews. Situational tests have a lifelike quality, are time-consuming and expensive, but are becoming attractive to psychologists.
Police Selection Recommendation
Police agencies that psychologically screen their police applicants consider the importance of the evaluation differently. Some consider it modestly, with other selection procedures frequently used, such as the civil service exam, physical fitness assessment, background investigation, and personal interview with police personnel. Most consider it a pass-or-fail component of the selection process. They no longer consider employing applicants whom psychologists fail. Psychologists’ selection recommendations are not always simple dichotomies: pass or fail, or suitable or unsuitable for law enforcement training. There are psychologists who use Likert-type scales to make their recommendations—3, 4, or 5 points ranging from not suitable to suitable.
A favorable recommendation or endorsement of an applicant by a psychologist does not guarantee that the applicant will be successful on the job. Selection recommendations are probabilistic events. They might be wrong because psychologists make their decisions under probable or uncertain conditions and with limited information that is sometimes imperfect. Psychologists will be incorrect (or False Accept) if their decision is “suitable” when the applicant’s actual status is “not suitable.” Psychologists will also be incorrect (or False Reject) if their decision is “not suitable” when the applicant’s actual status is “suitable.” Best evaluation practices to maximize “True Accept” and minimize the total number of “False Accept” and “False Reject” errors involve psychologists using personal interviews and multiple tests and validating them.
Current Trends in Police Selection
The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have recommended the psychological evaluation of police applicants. Most police agencies recognize and use the psychological evaluation as one component of the police selection process, but not all states legislatively mandate it or require applicants to pass it. Those police agencies that do not use police selection procedures that include a psychological evaluation are mostly small departments. Some courts have looked at the failure to screen police applicants’ mental fitness as negligence.
Despite the limitations associated with pre-employment psychological evaluations, psychologists predict a greater number of unsuitable police applicants than one would expect to find by chance alone. Psychologically evaluating police applicants continues to be an integral and evolving component of the selection of police officers.
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- Wrightsman, L. S., & Fulero, S. M. (2005). Forensic psychology (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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