They can tell you who is likely to use excessive force, perform poorly, make bad decisions, not get along well with others and call in sick - a lot. Who can possibly be so prescient and predictive? We're not talking about the folks manning the psychic hotlines; besides they cost a fortune and you're on the phone with them forever. We're talking pre-employment screening tests, and they are saving law enforcement agencies a bundle in terms of time, money and aggravation.
Most agencies have some form of selection process in place, although for many, this consists of little more than a general education/intelligence test, a background check and drug testing. For many departments, especially smaller ones, the infamous "gut feel" also plays a role.
In today's world, the wrong hiring decision extends beyond the prospect of taking on a bad or dangerous fit, it includes the potential of being accused of discriminatory hiring and the ensuing legal woes that result from such charges. As hiring has become more fraught with consequence, agencies have had to employ far more stringent screening processes and be more concerned about the tools they use to do so.
Screening tools can measure aspects such as cognitive abilities, job-specific skills, emotional stability, personality and self-control. The tests vary but they must have certain attributes in common, says psychologist Steve Griffin, coordinator of psychological evaluations for the Center for Applied Psychology and Forensic Studies (CAPFS Inc.), a Chicago, Illinois-based company that administers tests to police and fire agencies, and does psychological pre-screening interviews as well.
These tools must measure what they say they measure and reliably predict behavior/performance, he explains. For example, if a test claims to scrutinize skills related to accurate report writing, it should actually test those skills, and those applicants who score well on this assessment should in fact be capable of writing acceptable reports. Likewise, the majority of individuals who score poorly on such a test should write lousy ones.
The results also should be consistent over time, for example, in a test/retest situation. If the same group of great report writers took an identical test years later, they should still score well on it. Screening tools also must be objective, meaning they do not unfairly favor one group over another. Otherwise, agencies can be vulnerable to charges of disparate hiring. Tests also must be normed on the appropriate targets so applicant scores can be compared against other applicant scores, explains Ted Jackson, president of Sigma Assessment Systems Inc. of Port Huron, Michigan.
Agencies stand to realize tremendous advantages through incorporating a variety of screening tools into their hiring process, says Griffin. Still, some balk at utilizing these products, primarily because of concerns over costs.
"But what tends to help departments realize how these tools can work for them is when you look at the costs of early termination or civil rights complaints," he says.
David Koonce, director of human resources and civil service for the City of Lufkin, Texas, agrees. The city's screening process for its 78-officer strong department consists of a general intelligence and skills aptitude test, which looks at writing, spelling, the ability to pick out relevant information, how well the candidates express themselves, their general aptitude for police work, and so on.
After this, successful candidates get a physical exam, a personality assessment to ensure there are no character flaws, a psychological test where they sit in front of a TV and are presented with different scenarios to see how they respond under stress (and where they are viewed by hidden observers who monitor their reactions/behavior), and the usual background investigation, drug tests, etc. This combined approach has been extremely successful, Koonce says.