The delivery and conduct of Pre-employment Psychological Evaluations (PPE’s) of police and public safety officers are crucial to candidates and the agencies to ensure that prospective employees are suitable for the work.
Psychologists overseeing and conducting these assessments must follow the standards and consensus of professional practice and, critically, must be consistent in the methodologies and judgments used in their assessments.
In 2014, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Police Psychological Services Section updated PPE guidelines used by psychologists and public safety agencies responsible for executing and having defensible programs.
The guidelines are “intended to balance agency and societal needs with the legal rights of candidates and the applicable professional standards of the examiner.” To maintain compliance with the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, pre-employment psychological evaluations must be conducted post-offer.
A provisional offer of employment proposes that the candidate has completed a background check, including but not limited to civil and criminal complaints, arrest history, credit, parking and motor vehicle violations, etc., and has met the departmental requirements for a potential position in public safety. Departmental requirements may include an employment application, drug screen, physical health clearance and physical testing.
In addition, the candidate has demonstrated the cognitive, verbal and written skills compatible with the police position. However, each department likely has its own unique guidelines and requirements that must be satisfied for a candidate to receive the provisional offer of employment. Evaluators should know that each state has a Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training or similar entity that establishes minimum selection standards for law enforcement officers.
A pre-employment evaluator should be a licensed clinical psychologist who has specific training and experience conducting pre-employment psychological evaluations for public safety positions as well as an understanding of general police psychology. The psychologist should be able to identify, describe and quantify police and public safety job responsibilities and potential stress of the public safety position.
Evaluators should use test instruments that show empirical evidence supporting their use in the pre-employment evaluation and utilize tests that are designed specifically for public safety applicants. Further, the psychologist should be able to defend and justify the use of a psychological test when assessing a candidate for a police or public safety position.
Generally, a psychologist who conducts pre-employment evaluations gives a minimum testing battery that includes aptitude and personality testing. Personality testing should encompass tests that evaluate for psychopath-ology and “normal” personality traits.
Common tests used for pre-employment testing are the Wonderlic, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 2 restructured form (MMPI-2-RF) police candidate interpretive report, Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) for law enforcement, corrections and public safety, Inwald Personality Inventory 2, 16PF protective services report, etc.
The clinical interview usually covers developmental milestones, physical health, educational and work history, interpersonal relationships, substance use, legal and psychological history and coping skills. When examining a candidate’s coping skills, consideration should be given to the candidate’s judgment, stress resilience, anger management, integrity, teamwork and social competence.
Overall, the psychologist is evaluating the candidate’s ability to meet the behavioral, social, ethical and cognitive demands of modern policing. Testing results should be used with the candidate’s interview to fully assess the candidate’s suitability. The psychologist should look for instances in the interview where the candidate described examples of how they have handled stressful situations to assess how they might handle the complex social situations a police and public safety officer might engage.
The psychologist’s awareness of police culture is important to assess for this compatibility. The IACP suggests that “in most jurisdictions, the minimum requirements for psychological suitability are that the applicant be free from any emotional or mental condition that might adversely affect the performance of safety based duties and responsibilities and be capable of withstanding the psychological demands inherent in the prospective position.”
Prior to PPE, the applicant should sign and understand the objectives of the evaluation, the intended recipients, the limits of confidentiality and that the client is the agency, not the individual applicant. Once the evaluation is completed, a written report should be given to the hiring agency, not the applicant. The psychologist should avoid using clinical or psychiatric diagnosis or labeling unless relevant to the evaluation conclusions or required by law.
The psychologist cannot include the use of family history when making employment decisions due to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008. Therefore, a candidate could not be excluded because family members have a history of cancer or mental illness.
During a PPE, an agency or psychologist cannot use different norms or cutoff scores for protected persons. The civil rights act of 1991 says “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for a respondent, in connection with the selection or referral of applicants or candidates for employment or promotion, to adjust the scores of, use different cutoff scores for, or otherwise alter the results of, employment related tests on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The PPE report should focus on the applicant’s ability to safely and effectively perform the essential job functions and positions within police and public safety. The report should have a clear determination of the applicant’s suitability. A PPE determination is usually expressed in one of two ways: low, medium or high risk for hiring; or acceptable, marginal or unacceptable for hiring.
The psychologist should use the test data, clinical interview and the applicant’s background information to support the clinical decision. Clinical decisions are made on consistencies not solely derived from a single source of information or from one psychological test. The results of the applicant’s suitability are generally valid for one year unless otherwise established. If an agency allows a second opinion, as part of an appeal process, the repeated psychological evaluation should be based on the same requirements as the first.
References available from author
Carrie Steiner, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the First Responders Wellness Center, a full psychological services center for law enforcement providing psychological testing, training and therapeutic interventions. She served 13 years as a Chicago police officer. Her website is www.firstresponderswellnesscenter.com