History of Personality Assessment

In the years between the two world wars, psychologists gradually became more involved in the screening of law enforcement personnel and began to incorporate personality assessment into that enterprise. Wilmington, Delaware, and Toledo, Ohio, appear to share the distinction of being the first two cities to require ongoing psychological screening for use in police selection, in the form of mental and personality tests (Gottesman, 1975; Oglesby, 1957). The year was 1938. Thus, personality tests came on the scene at about this time. It was not until the late 1950s and 1960s, though, that personality assessment overtook cognitive tests in the screening of law enforcement personnel. While the aforementioned psychologists were among the first to study the cognitive capacities of police officers and candidates, there is no indication that they consistently participated in the screening and selection of law enforcement personnel. At this point, we History of Personality Assessmenthave no information about who might have been the first psychologist to assume this regular role. As late as 1939, Donald Paterson (1940) could identify only one psychologist, L. J. O’Rourke, who had actively investigated the validity of the nation’s civil service examination system, even though routine competitive exams were administered as far back as 1883.

During the late 1940s and the 1950s, psychologists continued to consult with police departments. The psychological screening processes initiated by the Wilmington and Toledo police departments was adopted by other cities; Jacksonville in 1947, Berkeley in 1949, Oakland in 1950, New Orleans in 1952, and Pasadena, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Cleveland in 1953 (Gottesman, 1975; Oglesby, 1957). In June 1952, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) began to administer a battery of psychological tests (MMPI, Rorschach, and a psychological interview; Rankin, 1957, 1959). The 1957 Rankin article was the first to appear in the literature attesting to any ongoing program of psychological assessment for police applicants (Gottesman, 1975).

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During the late 1960s, personality assessment, psychological screening, and police psychology in general received an immense boost when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967) strongly recommended widespread use of psychological measures to determine the emotional stability of all officer candidates. This recommendation was followed by the strong endorsement in 1968 by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder that psychological screening would improve the emotional quality of individuals entering law enforcement (Scrivner, 1994). In keeping with commission recommendations, Congress provided Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds for law enforcement agencies to retain the services of mental health professionals. In 1973, the Police Task Force Report of the National Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals encouraged the establishment of a behavioral sciences unit or consultant for all law enforcement agencies.

Even before then, though, psychologists were offering services to law enforcement on an as-needed basis, consulting in such areas as stress management, crisis management with the mentally disordered, and domestic violence. According to Nietzel (2000), the first project to train police in crisis intervention techniques in domestic disputes was developed in the late 1960s by Morton Bard, consulting with the New York City Police Department.

At about the same time, in December 1968, Martin Reiser was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a full-time police psychologist. The evidence to date indicates that Reiser was the first full-time psychologist whose responsibilities were strictly police-related. Reiser (1982) himself is not entirely certain he was the first full-time police psychologist in the country. In 1969, he presented a paper at the Western Psychological Association Convention in Vancouver entitled “The Police Department Psychologist.” This presentation may represent the “official” launch of contemporary North American police psychology. The paper was published in 1972. Reiser continued to be the most prolific writer on police psychology during the early 1970s. In 1972, in cooperation with the California School of Professional Psychology and the Los Angeles Police department (LAPD), he helped establish what is believed to be the first clinical internship in police psychology in the United States. By 1977, at least six other law enforcement agencies employed full-time psychologists (Reese, 1986, 1987).

Return to overview of the History of Forensic Psychology.