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Hiring: Background Investigation, Part 3

Written by Randy Means

The previous articles in this series on police personnel administration dealt with recruitment and selection, as well as related anti-discrimination laws. This month we expand on the topics of background investigation, psychological screening and character-based hiring. When we hire the right people, train them well and supervise them appropriately, our big problems are largely solved. When we hire the wrong people, we are often in for decades of misery and massive liability exposures.

Psychological Screening

Identifying psychopathology is not the only goal of our psychological screening processes. Your psychologist must not only be a good screener, but must also understand the career for which they are screening. Character traits that predict success as a law enforcement officer are likely to be very different from those of a successful accountant.

Also, the concept of a unique psychological agency fit is often overlooked in pre-employment psychological screening. The screening psychologist may evaluate the mental health of an applicant and make a job recommendation based solely on those findings. This is often misleading because an applicant could be successful in one department but unsuccessful in another.

Officers who function very well in a busy urban setting may become bored and restless in a rural environment, whereas officers who function well in a rural setting may be overwhelmed in a busy urban setting. But more importantly in many ways, some agencies are looking for a different kind of person than are other agencies.

The number and types of tests administered are an important consideration, as more than one test is essential to obtain a comprehensive evaluation. The IACP Psychological Services Section recommends a minimum of three objective assessment instruments. Other researchers recommend the use of personality and cognitive screening instruments as well as screening for psychopathology. In this short article, we certainly will not be able to navigate all the backwaters of these choices. Instead, we will stick with the basics.

Psychological assessments should include, at a minimum, a comprehensive background investigation, an intelligence/cognitive ability test, a personality assessment tool and a semi-structured clinical interview. While there is some conflict over using a comprehensive background investigation as part of a psychological evaluation because of the concern that it may prejudice the assessment, it is undeniable that the additional information is an asset to the psychologist in conducting this evaluation. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

Some of the more common psychological instruments are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory II, the California Personality Inventory, the Personality Assessment Inventory and the Inwald Personality Inventory. Areas that should be addressed in the semi-structured interview include, but are not limited to, criminal history, psychiatric history, family history, chemical use history, work and educational history, social history, problem solving skills and interpersonal skills.

Prior to a conditional offer of employment, questions pertaining to any medical information, including information about substance abuse or mental illness, are not allowed. Therefore, it is essential that these areas be explored after a conditional job offer has been extended.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is designed to protect the employment rights of disabled individuals by preventing discrimination in hiring. It is not designed to force law enforcement agencies into inappropriate hires. Still, the main goal is for the psychological screening to find the desired personality traits that you’re hoping to find in at least a few candidates. A study conducted by the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota may shed some light.

Character-Based Hiring

The study of character-based hiring in law enforcement began with a Department of Justice grant to the St. Paul, Minn., Police Department to find ways to reduce racial profiling in police departments. The most obvious answer was to simply hire people who are not likely to profile based on race. This led to the study of character in hiring.

Representatives of the St. Paul Police went to its community and asked, “What kind of person do you want to hire as a police officer in your community?” Based on the answers received, they developed a list of desired character traits like loyalty, tenacity and honesty, among others less obvious such as creativity. What was equally important was what the community did not say.

They did not say, “We want police officers who look like us.” No community leader interviewed said they wanted new hires of their particular race, ethnicity or gender. They all said they just wanted “good people.”

The then-current hiring practices of the St. Paul Police were reviewed against the newly identified desired character traits. It was found that the then-current practices were not screening for the desired traits. Subsequently, the department designed an entirely new hiring process based on character rather than experience. This new process began with the initial interview and followed through to a field training program which involved a performance track as well as a character track.

Positive demonstration in both tracks was required for successful completion of the program and an end of probation. The bottom line was that it is better to hire good people and teach them police work rather than hire people who understand police work and try to teach them to be good people.

So, what is your concept of a “good person”? We suggest that a good starting point, beyond honesty, is someone who is empathetic and compassionate. It may be that the same traits that would make someone the perfect emergency room nurse would make someone the ideal police officer. We can teach someone how to fire a weapon and improve their upper body strength, but teaching a disinclined person to be understanding would be quite a trick.

Adjustment of focus in recruiting, background investigation and psychological (personality) screening may be useful. Adding direct interpersonal skills testing would help as well, because traits like empathy typically show up in the way someone communicates, and also, as a functional issue, interpersonal communication skills are the most important skills in law enforcement work.

Lastly, we recall that our profession’s most stunning professional embarrassments and jaw-dropping legal liabilities were caused by problems of character, not by honest mistakes.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at rbmeans@aol.com.

Kevin Lowry recently retired as a chief from the Nassau County, N.Y., Police Department. He is a qualified attorney, arbitrator and hearing officer in matters of personnel and employment. Lowry has held supervisory and management positions in patrol, investigations and administration. He can be reached at Kevin@CALLaCOP.com.

Dennis Conroy, Ph.D., retired from the St. Paul, Minn., police department after 32 years. During that time he worked as a patrol supervisor, vice officer, narcotics investigator, training officer, and director of the department’s employee assistance program. He is a licensed psychologist and now has a clinical and training practice serving police agencies across the country.

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2011

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