As daily protests prompt the nation to have uncomfortable conversations about police use of force, it’s important to also reflect on a powerful and persistent cop stereotype – namely that too many are hyper-aggressive, infatuated by weaponry, and so psychologically damaged that they’d be rejected by the military.
Those are big assumptions. However, some versions of them are probably shared by poor and minority communities disproportionately at the wrong end of night sticks and service pistols.
But I know most officers don’t fit that ominous caricature. Most are brave public servants who surpassed highly selective and costly recruiting standards that weed out far more applicants than are accepted.
Ideally, those who make the grade are intelligent, able to evaluate their surroundings and the actions of others, are good communicators, have a good authoritative presence, strong integrity, ethics, sound decision-making skills, and are even-tempered, according to Susan Saxe-Clifford, a nationally recognized California-based police psychologist.
“When you put a gun in someone’s hands, that’s the ultimate responsibility in society,” Saxe-Clifford said. “You can choose them well, and train them well, but when an incident occurs, it’s all judgment.”
Still, for most police departments the dire need for highly functioning officers can cause standards to waiver. And few departments administer routine psychological assessments.
“I don’t know of any agency that does ongoing psych testing,” said Sue Rahr, director of the Washington state police academy. “My guess is that I don’t think the unions would tolerate it.”
Rahr, who advocates that police be more guardian than warrior, has requested about $140,000 from the state to expand a study of her training philosophy. With the additional funds, she’ll use confidential surveys to track former cadets up to 10 years into police service to see if her training stuck.
Meanwhile, nationally recognized standards for psychological assessment – which crucially includes an interview with a specialist before a candidate even becomes a cadet – are varied in their application. And, they cryptically determine if an applicant is fit or unfit for duty, but don’t always explain why.
“Close to half the states … don’t do anything close to what would be considered a professional level of psychological screening,” said Stephen Curran, a Maryland police psychologist with decades of experience. “And there are some states that have no interviews with a psychologist.”
In Seattle, even relatively new Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole says she had to answer the department’s 1,800-question psychological exam, go through an interview with a psychologist, and submit to a polygraph test to get the job. But it’s the type of advance evaluation she said is necessary for the stressful and demanding job.
“I want to be certain that we’re fair and produce the right candidates, and that we select people who will succeed,” O’Toole said.
Absent that it’s not hard to imagine one of those psychologically unfit applicants making their way into active policing. And that’s how an unfit cop – and his or her inevitable poor judgments – can be the brush that paints an entire profession.