The police personality

How do you ensure that potential candidates are suitable for a career in a police force? Tara Geraghty considers

In the USA there is great emphasis placed on the use of psychological screening in the recruitment process of potential police officers. In fact, a person’s performance in the psychological evaluation process can make or break their chances of being accepted into the police force. Up to 90% of law enforcement agencies in the USA use psychological evaluations in the recruitment process, whilst only 88% use drug tests when recruiting new candidates. Interestingly, it is a legal requirement in 26 US States to conduct pre-employment psychological evaluations of candidates.

So, what is psychological screening? Due to the generally unrealistic and exaggerated portrayal of criminology and psychology in film and TV there is often a misunderstanding of what psychological evaluations entail. The police screening process involves a battery of psychological tests aimed to evaluate a candidate’s suitability for a career in the police force. These tests are not a measure of a person’s mental health; they are an evaluation of whether a person holds certain characteristics that are seen as desirable for a career in law enforcement. These characteristics often include a measurement of a candidate’s impulse control, their honesty, their ability to make clear judgement and an evaluation of any personal bias they may hold. Failing the psychological screening to enter the police force does not mean that you are ‘unstable’ or ‘insane,’ it simply means that you are not suited to a career in law enforcement. The fact of the matter is that not everyone is cut out to be a police officer; the job involves dealing with potentially traumatic circumstances on a daily basis, a career that many would find difficult to cope with.

As you can imagine this screening process is an expensive tool when you consider the huge number of applicants hoping for a career in law enforcement, so the question is how successful are these pre-employment psychological evaluations and are they really worth it? Research in the States has suggested that psychological screening disqualifies 5% of those candidates who are evaluated, meaning that only 5% of candidates who undergo psychological evaluation are deemed unsuitable for a job in law enforcement. This may seem like a lot of effort for such a seemingly small return but looking at the bigger picture that accounts for thousands of unsuitable applicants across the country every year.

The cost of administering these tests is far less than the potential cost to the community of giving an unsuitable candidate a police badge and a weapon. There have been many incidents of extremely volatile individuals joining the police force and the results are harrowing to say the least. In the USA the importance of thorough psychological evaluation cannot be underestimated as every police officer carries a firearm. According to numerous psychological studies, a career in law enforcement is amongst the top 10 vocations that attract psychopaths. Psychopaths are often presumed to be hardened criminals or ruthless manipulators, but the truth is psychopaths exist in all walks of life. They are characterised by a lack of remorse, callousness, selfishness and a lack of empathy towards others. In fact, psychopaths thrive in professions that offer power and authority, so it is easy to see why they would be attracted to a profession in law enforcement. Equally it is clear to see why these people need to be kept out of the police force as police work often involves dealing with vulnerable people at their worst moments and requires a balance of both empathy and objectiveness that is a characteristic of any successful Garda.

At present there is arguably less emphasis placed on standardised psychological screening for potential candidates hoping to join An Garda Síochána. Currently prospective Gardaí have to be deemed to be of sound mental health and this is usually determined by a consultation with a GP rather than a psychologist. Becoming a member of An Garda Síochána is a difficult career to choose; Gardaí have to deal with the most negative aspects of human nature on a daily basis and the job requires both professionalism and empathy. Cutting edge psychological evaluations of prospective Gardaí could well benefit both the organisation as a whole and the community to which they serve.

Tara Geraghty is an Assistant Psychologist

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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