A town hall meeting in Portland, Oregon gave attendees a rare treat. A politician called for mandatory psychological evaluations of police officers. The call was made by Portland Representative Lew Frederick to enthusiastic rounds of applause from the crowd. Frederick called for annual psychological testing of police to battle the effects of the job particularly PTSD. Frederick stated “Every cop that I know can tell me about a PTSD experience they’ve had and they always say they aren’t affected by it. Well they are.” The call for psychological testing comes after a brutal year of police killings.
While Frederick’s call for action aims to verify an officer’s mental state each year, one has to ask if the current psychological screening is effective in and of itself. Psychological screenings for police agencies still utilize primarily the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. The MMPI, as it is otherwise known, is a multiple choice and fill in the blank test containing approximately 1100 questions and takes the better part of a day to complete. To truly understand whether or not the MMPI is sufficient for screening police candidates, you first have to realize that it was first created in 1943. It has been updated three times since then with the most recent update in 2008. The test, for the most part, is the same test as was written during World War II. Having taken the MMPI test for candidacy in at least five different agencies a total of eight times, I can say with certainty that this test is probably one of the single most easily manipulated tests I have ever taken. While some say there are no right answers, everyone knows what the background screeners and police psychologists want to hear. If you are asked, “Do you often feel alone, even when surrounded by friends?”, you should pretty much know what they want to hear, regardless of your state of depression. When asked questions about being outgoing and leadership, you always say you are even if you never could. That’s how bad people become good cops. The MMPI no longer is adequate in screening for the problems we are seeing in police today.
Another problem with the current system of psychological checks and balances in the police world is stigma. All agencies offer some level of psychological counseling through third party providers at no cost, however not many cops utilize these services because they are afraid. They are afraid of other cops finding out. They are afraid of having a real problem and not being able to do their job. The slew of psychological problems experienced by cops go mostly undetected until they manifest in trouble on the job, infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse and the like. In short, cop ego gets in the way of everything, particularly their own psychological well being.
So, Lew Frederick is on the right track when he calls for psychological testing. The real issue in his proposition is to determine what type of psych testing will be implemented. The MMPI and traditional testing I no longer believe to be valid modern screening methods. All too often we don’t become aware of psychological issues in officers until they kill someone or themselves. An examination of an officer’s disciplinary history especially in reference to use of force issues gives a pretty clear cut view of an officer’s attitudes to wards the public. That’s what we really need to find out about police candidates and working officers. What are their attitudes toward the public, towards cultural differences, or can they handle the daily pressures of the job and not funnel that energy into destructive behaviors. Once we have a test that can identify and isolate officers who can deal with the stresses of being a cop and not implode, then we will start to make progress. Until that day comes, using the same old tests on the same officers will not achieve the goals we have set and need to reach.