Screening police officers before they shoot
by Jack El-Hai
When the police shoot unarmed citizens, we can’t help asking about the judgment, communication abilities, and emotional health of the involved law enforcement officers. Would other people in uniform have handled these volatile situations without loss of life? How well are police officers screened to ensure that they are psychologically suitable for their very difficult duties?
More than 60 years ago, an American psychiatrist grew obsessed by these questions. Douglas M. Kelley, M.D., was uniquely qualified to investigate the psychological traits of people in positions of authority. During the months immediately after World War II, Kelley, then a U.S. Army captain, had been sent to the jail in Nuremberg, Germany, to evaluate the sanity of the top 22 captured Nazi leaders awaiting trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He studied a group of men widely believed to be the cruelest villains of the 20th century: Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Rosenberg, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, among others.
His shocking findings — that the surviving overseers of the Third Reich suffered from no psychiatric illnesses and shared no personality disorders — led Kelley to conclude that many of us, many so-called normal people, possess traits that under certain circumstances will inspire us to act criminally in our own interests. Not everyone will follow this dark path with social prompting, Kelley believed, but a significant percentage will.
Working with the Berkeley Police
Soon after Kelley returned to the U.S., he turned his attention to the psychological evaluation of law enforcement officers, a topic previously given little attention. Working with the police department in Berkeley, California, he examined a group of officer recruits. He judged 23 percent of them “sufficiently unstable to be considered potential hazards in these positions.” Further studies convinced him that one-third to one-half of America’s police officers were psychologically unqualified to protect citizens or enforce laws.
Alarmed, the Berkeley police chief allowed Kelley to undertake regular psychiatric evaluations of all recruits, and Kelley became a pioneering advocate of the thorough psychological screening of prospective police officers.
Now, nearly a lifetime later, Kelley’s dream of spreading and standardizing the rigorous psychological evaluation of police officers remains a fantasy. Some 20 states still fail to require psychological screening, evaluations are inconsistently conducted, and many smaller police forces forego the screenings entirely.
The purpose of psychological screening
Many people, police officers and chiefs included, are misinformed about the intent of psychological screening. The purpose is not to identify mentally ill applicants and “psychos” — no police department has the resources to conduct such medically in-depth and costly assessments — but to flag prospective officers who may perform poorly in a high-stress profession that requires quick decision-making, emotional control, sound judgment in dangerous situations, honesty, teamwork, and strong communications.
A vast swath of the public, including me and probably you, would fail as police officers. We simply don’t have the qualities that the best people in law enforcement need, which includes the ability to know when to use, and not use, violent force to subdue suspects. Well-designed psychological assessments, competently conducted, help identify applicants whose personalities and ways of thinking will prove barriers to their effective performance of police duties.
Douglas Kelley relied on the Rorschach inkblot test — the same assessment involving the interpretation of abstract ink-splattered images that he had used to appraise the Nazi defendants — in his examination of prospective police officers. Today’s examiners use such tools as interviews and multiple-choice personality assessments. But the tests and methods vary greatly between police departments, as do the qualifications and experience of the examiners. There are no national standards for the assessments or the level of competency of the examiners. As a result, candidates judged unsuitable for police work in one department could be found perfectly suitable in another.
We need national standards for screenings, which could prevent the entry of unfit officers in all American police jurisdictions. In decades past, there have been barriers. Many police administrators actively opposed Kelley in his advocacy of psychological evaluations. Records obtained from the FBI disclose that in 1954 the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police complained to Hoover’s G-men about Kelley’s articles on psychologically unfit cops and urged the FBI to investigate him.
Sound psychological assessments don’t come cheap. Police psychologists frequently conduct their examinations in a low-cost rush, making conscientious examinations costly and hard to find. But we clearly need to improve the quality of the psychological screenings of aspiring police officers and to set national standards. No one yet knows whether unfit officers are responsible for recent police shootings of unarmed citizens. It’s certain, though, that if psychological screenings remain inconsistently and cursorily applied, more shootings await us.