Physical screening standards seem to be on the slide as well. Torpy notes that more often applicants "can't meet the requirements to get into the [police] academy." Specifically, some applicants can't run the 1.5 miles within the prescribed time or meet similar cardio or strength requirements. "We'll hire them if they're close," Torpy says. "And we work with them to get them into the academy. But they've got to be within a certain range so that we feel comfortable that they can meet the test requirements."
While Los Alamos used to do fitness testing pass/fail, about two years ago they changed this philosophy to one of "close enough," allowing them to pick up a few candidates that would have previously been washed out.
It doesn't help that some academies, which incorporate physical fitness into training, are drying up. NYPD is rumored to cancel their 2010 academy classes if the budget does not improve, according to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Most law enforcement agencies run academies and provide certification, but many small departments still do not. When the big departments like New York are considering cuts, it makes academies that are in good working order more valuable than ever.
Vincent says that after receiving a background packet, some people don't even turn it in, realizing that they've done "A, B, C and 1, 2, 3" and are not even qualified. In 2009, Phoenix PD gave a written test to approximately 4,000 people, and hired around 400.
Gauging emotional intelligence
An officer's mental well-being is of additional concern. Stories like those of Forest County, Wisconsin, Sheriff's Deputy Tyler Peterson, who killed six people in a barrage of rifle fire before turning it on himself, left many wondering if more screening shouldn't be done to monitor mental health. One can debate all day if tragedies like these are preventable or erratic — or perhaps both. Should such testing be a mandatory expense everywhere?
Although most states require psychological testing for prospective officers, Wisconsin belongs to the minority of states who do not. But Wisconsin State Representative Ann Hraycheck hopes to change that. Hraycheck, a former Polk County, Wisconsin, sheriff, recently petitioned for a bill mandating psychological screening for officers after what happened in Forest County. She found that many small agencies in remote locations do not do checks because they lack the funding, as well as the psychologists to administer them. Psychological evaluations can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 per test — a figure that for some small agencies is significant.
While valuable, the testing is not a cure-all. Pre-conditional and post-conditional screenings are limited, and can only offer an estimate of possible, near-future behavior. John Nicoletti, Ph.D., has been doing police psychology for more than 30 years and has contracts with a number of law enforcement agencies. In accordance with the American Disabilities Act, Nicoletti explains he is allowed to ask more in-depth questions during post-conditional screening, when the officer has already been offered a job. This is also when they can perform test batteries aimed at assessing psychological and emotional functioning.
Still, he says, "Screening has a limited shelf life. An officer gets into law enforcement and a variety of other things start to happen. I don't think there's any screening that could predict that 10 years down the road an officer's going to kill their spouse … What really is needed is early detection; when an officer is employed and starts changing … what we call 'deviation from the baseline.' "
In addition to pre-conditional and post-conditional screening, psychologists like Nicoletti also offer special assignment screening for negotiators, provide counseling for officers and their families, and provide training for de-escalation, suicide issues, stress management and trauma. He says that usually law enforcement folks don't like utilizing traditional employee systems because, although the counselors are good, they don't always understand law enforcement and the unique stressors that come with it.
It boils down to prevention. Hraycheck states, "There is no empirical data that would show if Tyler would have passed or not." She says that even people who have passed the testing have, for whatever reason, gone on to do bad things. At the same time, she argues, "Risk management is a very big part of being a law enforcement administrator, and we will do everything possible within our means to manage risk for the public, as well as the safety of our officers."