The Rookies: Recruits get psych screening - East Valley Tribune: News

The Rookies: Recruits get psych screening

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Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005 5:10 am | Updated: 9:37 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Officer arrested for beating wife. Cop accused of sexual abuse. Officer busted for drunken driving.

More on The Rookies special report series

Lately, it seems police officers make headlines just as often for the bad things they do as for the good.

Despite the bad press, however, psychologists and law enforcement officials believe they do a good job screening police candidates.

For the past 20 years or more, mental health experts have administered a variety of psychological tests to prospective officers.

Last week, six Chandler police candidates went through the testing, the latest in a series of hurdles they must clear to get to the Arizona Law Enforcement Academy in Phoenix.

The Tribune has followed the recruits since the department’s latest recruitment process in November. It’s part of an occasional series exploring everything from the testing process to the rigors of the police academy to the reality of life on the streets.

The department started with 145 candidates, but these six are all who’s left. The rest failed to make it through written and physical agility tests and two oral boards.

In the end, the police department hopes to have four candidates left to send to the academy this spring.

The most frequently administered test in the nation and in the East Valley is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

Sometimes, the testis one of many. Other times, psychologists also conduct an in-depth interview.

Police psychologist Sarah Hallett administers tests to candidates for more than a dozen Valley agencies, including Tempe and Gilbert.

"The tests help us identify major mental health issues that might inhibit them from safely operating as a law enforcement officer," Hallett said.

The tests identify people who are conscientious, unbiased, honest, handle stress well, are assertive, but not aggressive, and have good decision-making and problemsolving skills. They can also help determine if someone is mature, has good people skills and adequate coping mechanisms, she said.

When combined with an indepth background investigation, the psychological tests are good at screening out illsuited candidates, Hallett said.

But they aren’t perfect.

"Psychological evaluations are good predictors at the beginning of an officer’s career, but they can’t predict behavior for years into the future," Hallett said.

Police officers are not immune to life’s problems, Hallett said. They, too, go through divorce, financial difficulties and child-rearing, but they have to deal with those issues on top of the daily stresses of their job.

As a result, more police officers commit suicide than are killed in the line of duty, she said.

They can also make other poor choices, but Hallett draws a distinction between those officers and officers who are corrupt.

"Someone choosing to engage in corruption has nothing to do with stress," Hallett said.

Jack Harris, a retired Tucson police captain, is a partner in a psychology and private counseling practice in Tucson that specializes in public safety.

Harris has a name for people — whether they are law enforcement officers or not — who knowingly make the wrong choices in their chosen profession. He calls it the "10-percent ding-a-ling factor."

"There’s no way to prevent the hiring of these people in the prescreening process, you just have to catch it early with proactive supervision," Harris said. "Sometimes you can catch small problems before they get to become bigger problems."

People shouldn’t judge a department by those few who make headlines, however, Harris said.

"When you look at the hiring practices of law enforcement agencies, by and large, they do a good job," Harris said. "Are there people who get hired who shouldn’t be? I’d be a liar if I said ‘No,’ but the numbers are small."

If police agencies want to improve the quality of their officers, they need to better educate them, Harris said.

Officers often aren’t taught how to deal with the reality of life on the streets, he said.

"We make a mistake if we assume that by getting through the tests and the interviews, they can do the job," Harris said. "When they’re on probation we need to ask the same questions again and again. Is this person exhibiting the type of skills, behavior and knowledge that are expected of them by the department and the community they serve?"

Once rookie officers are inside that patrol car, their idealism is instantly put to the test, Harris said.

How the officers deal with disenchantment depends on their ability to maintain a healthy perspective and develop proper coping skills, Harris said.

"The officers who are able to successfully manage stress are those who have a sense of personal balance," Harris said. "They have interests outside the job and understand the realities of their job and the big picture."

Arizona does a better job than most states at taking care of their officers, Hallett said. More and more agencies hold critical incident stress debriefings following traumatic incidents and offer peer counseling programs.

Some agencies have implemented early warning systems, Hallett said. If an officer starts receiving more complaints or having more accidents, supervisors can investigate.

"If an officer has to perform CPR on a child who drowns in a pool and a few weeks later handles a fatal accident involving a child, it may need to be addressed," Hallett said. "It doesn’t mean that the officer isn’t tough or resilient or not competent to perform his job, it just means that he’s human."

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