Police Psychology

Police psychology, which entails the application of psychology within police contexts, has been an integral part of American law enforcement since the late 1960s. Traditionally, this field has been the domain of clinical psychologists, primarily focused on clinical aspects. While numerous large police departments, and some medium-sized ones, maintain the services of full-time clinical psychologists, many agencies opt for part-time contracts with clinical psychologists who often maintain their own separate private practices. The realm of psychology in police settings also encompasses research, consultation, and training activities, engaging psychologists with diverse backgrounds in fields such as experimental, social, and industrial-organizational psychology. Consequently, police psychology represents a multidisciplinary field wherein psychologists of varying specializations investigate and apply psychological principles to address issues and challenges specific to law enforcement. (It’s worth noting that this description does not encompass other law enforcement settings and professionals, such as sheriffs, marshals, or correctional officers, who occasionally undertake tasks akin to those of police officers.) Psychological services for law enforcement traditionally involve tasks such as evaluating police applicants, providing education and training to police officers, assessing job tasks and responsibilities, and conducting fitness-for-duty evaluations.

Evaluating Police Applicants

Since the 1960s, various 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 advocated for the evaluation of the psychological fitness of police applicants. Nowadays, it is commonplace for most police agencies to incorporate psychological evaluations as a fundamental component of their officer selection process. Typically, these evaluations are conducted by licensed clinical psychologists. Some psychologists employ a “select-in” evaluation approach, where they identify applicants demonstrating the qualities necessary for success in the role and recommend them for police training. Conversely, other psychologists utilize a “screen-out” approach, identifying undesirable characteristics in applicants and suggesting that law enforcement agencies not consider them for employment. Many psychologists employ a combination of both strategies, simultaneously screening out individuals with psychopathological traits and selecting those who embody ideal police characteristics. In essence, the aim of these evaluations is to identify suitable applicants. These assessments typically include a battery of psychological tests, personal interviews, situational tests, and culminate in a selection recommendation.

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Psychologists administering these evaluations employ various types of psychological tests, including intelligence tests, personality tests, projective tests, and situational tests. Intelligence tests, such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, gauge applicants’ cognitive abilities, with prior research establishing a connection between intelligence test scores and job success in recruit training. Personality tests are employed to measure stable characteristics or traits in applicants and often include self-report, paper-and-pencil inventories like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the California Psychological Inventory (CPI), and the Inwald Personality Inventory (IPI). These tests have shown empirical support in predicting potential job-related behaviors among police applicants, such as punctuality, drug usage, adherence to police procedures, and use of excessive force. Projective tests, which request responses to unstructured stimuli or situations, such as the Rorschach Inkblot Test, are less commonly used by psychologists. Additionally, the use of situational tests, where police applicants engage in role-playing exercises simulating job-related conditions, is less frequent. However, there is limited empirical evidence supporting the use of projective and situational tests in the screening of police applicants for law enforcement training.

Psychologists supplement the test results from this battery with information garnered from personal interviews, which are a customary part of the psychological evaluation. Personal history questionnaires are employed to collect data on the backgrounds of applicants, encompassing areas such as family, work, health, and any history of criminal behavior. During the interviews, psychologists commonly utilize a structured question format, although they often ask probing questions to follow up on applicants’ responses and may include questions requested by their law enforcement clients. These interviews play a crucial role in helping psychologists interpret and validate the data derived from test sources.

Educating and Training Police Officers

The role of the police is a multifaceted one, encompassing the critical responsibilities of preserving the peace, upholding law and order, ensuring the enforcement of laws, and protecting the overall well-being of the community. In fulfilling these paramount duties, police officers constantly face the inherent risks and potential dangers associated with their line of work. Consequently, the significance of thorough education and comprehensive training for law enforcement personnel cannot be overstated.

Within the realm of police education and training, several critical issues have garnered significant attention from psychologists. These issues are integral to equipping officers with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in their demanding roles. Let’s explore these areas in greater detail:

  1. Negotiating Hostage and Barricaded-Suspect (HBS) Situations: Psychologists have played a vital role in developing training programs that prepare officers to effectively manage high-stress HBS situations. Such scenarios require a unique set of negotiation and conflict resolution skills, including understanding the psychology of both the hostage-taker and the victims. These programs emphasize de-escalation techniques to minimize potential harm while ensuring the safe resolution of these tense situations.
  2. Handling Individuals with Mental Illness: With the increasing recognition of mental health issues within the community, police officers often find themselves at the forefront of responding to crises involving individuals with mental illnesses. Psychologists have worked to incorporate training on mental health awareness and crisis intervention into police education. This training equips officers with the knowledge and skills to respond compassionately and effectively, de-escalating situations and ensuring individuals in crisis receive appropriate care.
  3. Conducting Criminal Investigations: Investigative skills are at the core of law enforcement responsibilities. Police officers must be adept at gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and building a strong case for prosecution. Psychologists have contributed to the development of training curricula focused on improving investigative techniques, including enhancing the ability to detect deception, understanding behavioral cues, and conducting ethical and thorough investigations.
  4. Managing Job-Related Stress: Policing is an inherently stressful occupation, with officers regularly exposed to traumatic incidents and challenging circumstances. The mental health and well-being of officers are paramount. Psychologists have developed programs aimed at teaching stress management strategies, emotional resilience, and coping mechanisms. These programs help officers navigate the emotional toll of their profession and maintain their mental and emotional health.

In addition to these four core areas, police education and training continue to evolve to address emerging challenges in law enforcement, such as community-oriented policing, diversity and inclusion, and the use of technology in policing. The expertise of psychologists is instrumental in shaping these educational initiatives, ensuring that officers are not only well-prepared for their roles but also equipped to build positive relationships within their communities and adapt to the evolving landscape of law enforcement.

Negotiating Hostage and Barricaded-Suspect Situations

In the realm of modern law enforcement, most police agencies have established critical incident teams, known by various names such as Special Response Teams (SRT) or Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. These specialized units are tasked with resolving or aiding in the resolution of high-threat or special-threat situations, including those encountered in Hostage and Barricaded-Suspect (HBS) scenarios. The utilization of critical incident teams has undergone a significant transformation since the infamous 1972 Olympic Games incident in Munich, West Germany, which exposed the need for a more strategic and effective approach.

In the early days of critical incident management, the predominant police response to HBS situations was an aggressive assault. This approach often entailed the use of forceful options, frequently resulting in lethal consequences for suspects. In some cases, the families of the suspects pursued legal action against the police, highlighting the need for a more humane and effective strategy.

The early 1970s marked a turning point when a collaborative effort between psychologists and sworn personnel gave rise to verbal tactics as an alternative to the confrontational assault approach. These verbal tactics focused on extending the duration of the incident to de-escalate the situation and persuade suspects to surrender peacefully. Police records have consistently demonstrated that critical incident teams achieve successful resolutions in the majority of HBS situations without causing harm when officers employ skilled verbal negotiation. Notably, when clinical psychologists were integrated into the negotiation process, the success rate in resolving such incidents without injuries increased significantly.

To equip officers with the essential skills for successful HBS negotiations, training programs have been developed and made available, most notably at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) academy in Quantico, Virginia. The FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit provides comprehensive training to FBI negotiators and law enforcement negotiators from various agencies. Furthermore, private companies, often led by experienced police negotiators, offer specialized negotiation skills training. Some of these trainers are psychologists with expertise in crisis negotiation.

Training in HBS negotiation emphasizes several key components. First and foremost, it focuses on containing suspects, negotiating with them effectively, and understanding the personal factors motivating their behavior. Moreover, the training encourages officers to extend the duration of the incident, allowing suspects the opportunity to express their emotions and ultimately make rational decisions. An essential aspect of negotiation training is the development of active listening skills, often practiced through role-playing scenarios.

While preliminary findings suggest that training, such as the FBI’s National Crisis Negotiation Course, can significantly improve active listening skills among agents, the empirical research on the overall effectiveness of crisis negotiation training is still in its early stages. There is an urgent need for further research to comprehensively evaluate the impact and success of these training programs in the context of critical incident management. The evolution of police response to HBS situations through negotiation teams highlights the ongoing commitment to safeguarding lives and promoting peaceful resolutions in high-stress scenarios.

Handling People with Mental Illness

In recent years, the police have found themselves increasingly interacting with individuals who have mental illnesses. Researchers estimate that between 5% and 10% of all police-citizen contacts involve people with mental illness. These encounters often take place in the context of the individual’s home, with family members frequently making calls for police assistance. It is noteworthy that, in most instances, the police are able to resolve these calls without any incident. This significant increase in interactions between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness can be attributed to various factors, including the deinstitutionalization of state mental hospitals, changing demographics within the mentally ill population, stricter criteria for accessing mental health services, and the limited availability of psychological support.

Recognizing this evolving landscape, the police have proactively sought education and training in the appropriate handling of individuals with mental illness. They have come to understand that mental illness is not synonymous with criminal behavior and that individuals living with mental health conditions are integral parts of their communities, pursuing professional vocations, and occasionally requiring police assistance. Empirical investigations have also revealed a complex link between mental illness and criminal behavior. For example, individuals with conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are more likely to display behaviors deemed antisocial and potentially criminal by society. Moreover, a significant portion of mentally ill offenders are under the influence of substances like alcohol or drugs when they commit crimes, which further complicates the situation. There exists a slightly elevated risk that individuals with mental illness may exhibit violent behavior.

While individuals with mental illness may indeed find themselves involved in criminal activities or become victims of crime, police responses to these encounters have significantly improved with focused training. Collaborative efforts between police personnel, psychologists, and other mental health professionals have led to the development of comprehensive training programs. These programs cover essential topics such as the symptomatology of mental conditions, the spectrum of nonarrest and arrest options available, and tailored community-oriented police responses.

Furthermore, standardized model policies have been developed for police departments to adopt, focusing specifically on their interactions with individuals with mental illness. These policies not only help law enforcement agencies establish a consistent framework for their responses but also provide flexibility to cater to the unique needs of individuals with mental illness in diverse situations. In essence, the police have acknowledged the importance of ensuring that their interactions with those who have mental health conditions are characterized by empathy, understanding, and an emphasis on de-escalation rather than confrontation.

In this evolving landscape, collaboration between law enforcement, mental health professionals, and community stakeholders is critical. Through ongoing training and the adoption of standardized policies, the police are better equipped to respond effectively to situations involving individuals with mental illness while promoting the well-being and safety of both the individual and the community at large.

Conducting Criminal Investigations

Psychologists have made significant contributions to the refinement of police procedures and tactics, particularly in the realm of criminal investigations. Their work has not only generated valuable psychological insights but has also guided law enforcement agencies in applying this knowledge to investigative techniques, with a particular focus on areas like eyewitness identification.

For instance, consider the scenario in which a police detective asks an eyewitness to identify a suspect from a set of photos. Psychologists have advised detectives to present these photos sequentially, one at a time, rather than simultaneously. This method aims to reduce the likelihood of misidentification, as it discourages the eyewitness from comparing the photos and attempting to identify the one that most resembles the suspect. Lower chances of misidentification are observed when the detective is unaware of the suspect’s actual identity, informs the eyewitness that the suspect’s photo may or may not be among the options, refrains from providing feedback during or after the identification process, and queries the eyewitness about their confidence in the identification.

Psychological research has also focused on police interrogation tactics, highlighting how some of these methods can lead to false confessions. An illustrative example involves a police detective interrogating a suspect for an extended period. Such interrogations create a stressful environment, making some suspects highly suggestible. Under the influence of stress, these individuals may eventually come to believe in the accusations made by the detective, even if they are innocent. In other cases, suspects may confess if the detective resorts to threats of punishment or makes promises during the interrogation, regardless of their actual guilt. Additionally, in highly publicized crimes, the allure of attention or fame may motivate a suspect to confess to a crime they did not commit.

Another area of focus for psychologists is the detection of deception during police interrogations. Law enforcement agencies are well aware that lying often triggers uncontrollable physiological responses in suspects. For instance, when using the polygraph technique, a detective may question a suspect about both non-crime-related and crime-related matters. Psychologists have revealed that the crime-related questions typically elicit more pronounced physiological responses, a pattern that may suggest guilt. However, it’s essential to note that most courts do not accept polygraph results as admissible evidence. Psychological research has indicated a relatively low accuracy rate in detecting deception and a high rate of false positives when using this method. Despite these challenges, police continue to employ the technique, often as a psychological tool to convince suspects of its infallibility, thereby encouraging them to admit their involvement in a crime.

In summary, psychologists have played a vital role in advancing police investigative practices, enhancing the accuracy and reliability of processes such as eyewitness identification, while also highlighting potential pitfalls in interrogation tactics and deception detection. Their contributions serve not only to protect the rights of suspects but also to uphold the integrity of the criminal justice system.

The realm of police investigations offers various techniques for gathering information and insights, and psychologists have played a crucial role in advancing these investigative methods. Here, we delve into some of these techniques, including hypnosis and criminal profiling, while examining their effectiveness and the role of psychologists in their application.

Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a technique occasionally employed by law enforcement, typically conducted by psychologists, psychiatrists, or trained forensic hypnotists. Its primary use is to elicit information from eyewitnesses or victims and is rarely applied when dealing with suspects. Despite its utilization, there is limited empirical evidence to substantiate the notion that hypnosis consistently produces reliable memories.

Criminal Profiling: Criminal profiling is a comprehensive investigative tool used to delineate the characteristics of potential suspects in criminal cases. The process involves a police detective analyzing the crime scene, delving into the victim’s personal history, considering motivational factors, drawing parallels between the crime’s nature and the behavior of known criminals, and finally, formulating a hypothesis about the suspect’s demographic and psychological traits, such as age, sex, race, education, marital status, and personality. To acquire specialized training in criminal profiling, one can turn to institutions like the FBI Academy.

Professionals in the field of criminal profiling utilize behavioral science techniques in conjunction with other investigative tools to create profiles that guide the direction of investigations. These profiles often help narrow down the focus to specific types of suspects while maintaining an open perspective on all potential wrongdoers. The efficacy of criminal profiling has been a subject of scrutiny, with some research suggesting that professional profilers outperform non-professionals when it comes to extracting information from crime scenes and making predictions about suspects.

In summary, psychological techniques in police investigations encompass a range of tools, each with its unique purpose and level of empirical support. Hypnosis is utilized to glean information from eyewitnesses or victims, although the reliability of the memories it elicits remains a subject of debate. Criminal profiling, on the other hand, is a multifaceted approach used to identify potential suspect characteristics. While its effectiveness is still a topic of investigation, research indicates that professional profilers may offer superior results compared to non-professionals. The involvement of psychologists in refining and implementing these techniques is instrumental in enhancing the quality and accuracy of police investigations.

Managing Job-Related Stress

Police stress is a multifaceted reaction to adverse physical, psychological, or social forces that can manifest in various ways, including physical, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes in an officer’s behavior. This stress can originate from multiple sources, such as law enforcement work, personal life, the criminal justice system, the police organization itself, or interactions with the public. Notably, stress linked to law enforcement duties, particularly incidents involving the use of force by or against the police, has garnered significant attention in terms of research, training, and counseling.

To address the challenges posed by police stress, law enforcement agencies have adopted strategies to educate and train their officers in stress management. These training curricula focus on helping officers recognize stress reactions and equipping them with the skills needed to mitigate the potential negative consequences of stress. In addition, police agencies have taken steps to provide their officers and their families with information about job-related stress and mental health support. To further bolster the well-being of their personnel, they have established peer support teams comprising fellow officers and mental health professionals, such as psychologists. These teams are instrumental in offering guidance and assistance to officers experiencing stress.

In the aftermath of critical police incidents, post-incident debriefings are routinely conducted. These sessions serve as early crisis intervention efforts, enabling officers to discuss the events, normalize their responses, and help identify those in need of professional mental health support. Peer support teams often play a crucial role within these debriefing sessions.

In summary, police stress arises from a variety of sources and can have a profound impact on officers’ well-being. Recognizing the importance of addressing this issue, police agencies have implemented educational, training, and support mechanisms to assist their officers in managing stress and its associated challenges. This holistic approach, bolstered by peer support teams and post-incident debriefings, promotes the mental and emotional health of law enforcement personnel, ultimately contributing to the overall effectiveness and resilience of the police force.

Evaluating Job Tasks and Duties

Psychologists trained in industrial-organizational psychology have played a crucial role in studying the work of police officers. One of the fundamental tools they employ is job analysis, a comprehensive process that assesses various aspects of police officers’ responsibilities, tasks, knowledge, skills, and performance outcomes. This valuable method helps in gaining a deeper understanding of the nature of police work and provides essential insights for police agencies in their decision-making processes.

Job analysis encompasses a variety of techniques, including reviewing existing literature on policing, examining departmental documents (e.g., operational manuals, rules, policies, and general orders), direct observations of officers in action (e.g., ride-alongs and training sessions), interviews with police personnel, and the administration of survey questionnaires. These methods collectively yield a detailed catalog of job duties, such as crime prevention and law enforcement, and specific job tasks, including activities like making arrests and completing reports. Police agencies rely on the information generated through job analysis to make informed decisions related to organizational operations, including police officer selection and promotional procedures.

Job analysis is a comprehensive and resource-intensive process that necessitates commitment and cooperation at all levels within a police organization. Moreover, it serves to validate pre-employment standards and selection procedures, a critical aspect in light of legal mandates like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Police agencies are required to establish a clear link between their pre-employment standards and selection procedures and job-related behaviors. By regularly updating and aligning their selection practices with job analyses, police agencies can reduce their vulnerability to claims of discriminatory selection procedures, thus promoting fairness, effectiveness, and adherence to legal standards in the recruitment and promotion of officers.

Carrying Out Fitness-for-Duty Assessments

Police agencies bear a crucial responsibility to maintain the psychological well-being and fitness of their officers. Part of this responsibility involves the authority to order psychological evaluations for officers displaying patterns of problematic job-related behaviors. These behaviors may manifest as instances of authority abuse, excessive use of force, substance misuse, or involvement in criminal activities. To address such issues, police agencies must gather and document pertinent information regarding the behavioral concerns they intend to rectify. Documentation sources can include performance evaluations, pre-employment psychological screening reports, disciplinary actions, medical or counseling records, and other relevant reports that substantiate the need for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Officers subject to these evaluations are required to provide written consent.

Conducting fitness-for-duty evaluations is a specialized task reserved for licensed or certified psychologists (or psychiatrists) with clinical experience. Importantly, the client in this process is the police agency that requests the evaluation, not the officer under evaluation. Larger police departments with in-house psychologists often have these professionals perform the assessments. However, a potential conflict arises when in-house or external psychologists have previously provided counseling to an officer whom the police agency now refers for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. To mitigate such conflicts, most police agencies opt to contract with external psychologists. These arrangements minimize dual relationships, ensuring a more objective and unbiased assessment process.

The Psychological Services section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that psychologists engaged in these evaluations possess training and experience in psychological testing and police assessment techniques. They should also demonstrate familiarity with police job-related functions and the legal aspects of employment practices in the law enforcement sector. An assessment of an officer’s job-related mental fitness typically encompasses a comprehensive review of background information, the administration of a battery of psychological tests, a clinical interview, the development of a detailed report, and the formulation of recommendations. The primary objective of the assessment is to determine the presence or absence of personal characteristics essential for effective job-related behaviors that the officer may be lacking. Initial recommendations categorize the officer as either “fit” or “not fit.” In addition, police chiefs or other relevant stakeholders (the client) may seek further guidance, such as mental health counseling, remedial training, or other interventions to address the identified issues and enhance the officer’s psychological fitness for duty.


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