Weeding Out The Bad Seeds

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.

"Prior to this (using personality screening/stress testing, etc) we had officers who had trouble keeping their positions," he explains. "We had 10 times as many personnel incidents, 10 times as many appeals to civil service and 10 times as many arbitrations. This process has really alleviated a lot of headaches for us, and our turnover has been reduced by at least half."

Koonce's experience is no surprise to Henry Morse, president of Law Enforcement Testing Company Inc. of Lakeland, Florida.

"There are several ways these tests help agencies," he explains. "They serve as a gatekeeper in a formalized and efficient way - you will not get dysfunctional people. They legitimize the screening process. Any process discriminates, but these tests exercise fair and appropriate discrimination based on job-relevant capability, and only on job capability, thus eliminating unintentional or intentional bias. This protects the agency against claims of discrimination and keeps them out of court.

"And these tests do, in fact, predict future success, and therefore reduce turnover," Morse continues. "This helps agencies spend their hiring and training money far more effectively. It's a more economical use of the budget."

But where does all this leave gut feel? Has the hiring become so data-oriented and interpretative that gut feel no longer has a place in the process? Well, maybe other agencies can afford to take a less structured approach, but not the Lufkin Police Department, says Koonce.

"There is no room for gut feel in civil service," he says emphatically. "We have a sister city that is not civil service and they can take anyone off the street, just because they like their look or personality or maybe they're related to the chief of police, and hire them. They can, but we can't because we're civil service."

Civil service or not, gut feel is not a sound basis for hiring, Jackson adds.

"I sometimes feel that part of my job is to point out that gut feel is inherently risky and often wrong," he says. "It can be affected by so many things, and it's also very possible for the interviewer to be biased. Plus, the vast majority of people believe that their gut feel is above average and by definition, since the majority of people can't be above average, this is impossible. Our position is that having a well thought out selection process that maximizes objectivity is best."

Agencies shouldn't rely on just one tool, cautions Krista Isakson, SSPO and MMPI-2 product/market manager with Pearson Assessments of Bloomington, Minnesota.

"There is quite an array of processes out there that departments use," she says. "For example, when it comes to report writing, many departments just use an essay writing sample and gut feel. Some departments believe an interview alone is sufficient. But many components should be used in conjunction with one another - and these should be standardized and objective. Problems arise when just a single tool is relied on."

Jackson concurs. "Being a good officer requires a variety of skills, and you need a variety of tests to measure this."