Psychological testing for police candidates: The bar is high, for good reason
We expect a lot of police officers. We invest them with authority and issue firearms to them. We ask them to adhere to the highest standards of professionalism, integrity, forbearance and good judgement in situations most of us cannot imagine.
It is no wonder, then, that we take such pains to screen them properly.
After all, there is a lot at stake. Admitting individuals who are ill-suited to police work is not only a waste of training time and resources but it can introduce additional risk in terms of the safety of the public and the officers.
Screening law enforcement candidates is not easy, nor is it perfect. But our procedures have come a long way since I started conducting them back in 1979. Our sole focus used to be screening out candidates, such as those with mental health disorders or psycho-pathologies. Today, we look just as closely at competencies favouring success.
Calian Health helps numerous police forces across the country screen candidates. We also support federal departments and agencies such as Canada Border Services Agency, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Correctional Services Canada. In doing so we measure simultaneously for strengths and weaknesses using two of the most widely used psychometric tests in North American law enforcement: MMPI2 (Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory 2) and 16PF (16 Personality Factor).
On the written psychometric test individuals are tested on a sliding scale in a variety of areas including adaptability; decisiveness; judgement; problem solving; emotional regulation; stress tolerance and management; substance abuse avoidance; and many other factors. Those demonstrating psychopathology or mental health issues are screened out.
Then comes the interview. Research shows that the interview is key to confirming or challenging conclusions reached in the psychometric test and providing greater overall reliability – or predictive quality – in the testing process.
The interview is conducted in two parts: one, a clinical follow-up on the written test; and, two, a structured stress interview. In the clinical follow-up we probe any concerns that have been identified in the psychometric test to understand whether any extraneous factors may have influenced the test score.
In the structured stress interview we ask the candidate to describe a stressful situation from their past and probe their emotional, behavioural and cognitive responses in the situation they are recalling. Research has shown that by asking them to recall a demanding, real-life situation we can read their probable level of tolerance to similar situations in the future.
Setting the bar high
Candidates, of course, are working hard to put their best foot forward. This can present challenges for testers. The combination of the psychometric test and the two-part interview helps identify inconsistencies where an individual could be attempting to distort the results.
Law enforcement officers have one of the most demanding roles in our society. The job has unusually high stressors. Public safety professionals can witness disturbing acts of violence, be threatened with physical harm and have to deal with violent criminals -- the kind of people you and I rarely encounter, if ever. As a society we must set the bar high. That’s why the ratio of rejected versus accepted candidates is higher than most graduate and professional schools in the country.
The screening process we use is formal, structured, empirically-based and defensible. While I would never purport it to be perfect, it provides strong assurances of an individual’s suitability for law enforcement, based on objective measures.
Dr. William J. Barker leads Calian’s psychological assessment services. He is former president of Priority One, acquired by Calian in 2018.