Mandatory Psychological Testing for Police Officers

Psychological testing is already required for South Carolina’s police departments that are state or nationally accredited, but a new requirement by the criminal justice academy will require psychological pre-screening for the 241 un-accredited police departments in the state. That we should screen law enforcement applicants for mental health issues seems like a no-brainer, and I did not realize that there was no mandatory screening for most of South Carolina’s law enforcement agencies.

What do Psychological Screens Look For?

An article published on states the obvious reasons that psychological pre-screens are necessary for law enforcement:

Law enforcement is a high-stress, people-intensive profession. Before a department invests the time and resources in hiring, training, and fielding an officer, it wants to be reasonably sure that officer will be able to perform his or her job, will not pose a risk or danger to the public, and won’t create a liability for the department.

The tests are designed to catch potential officers that have significant mood, personality, or substance abuse disorders before they get on the police force. Typically, testing involves a clinical interview with a psychologist and one or more psychological tests after which the reviewer may examine the applicants’ medical and employment histories. One complaint, noted in the article, is that the evaluators are often chosen based on the lowest bid rather than the evaluators’ competency, and some pre-screens may be flawed because the evaluators are not putting enough time into their evaluations.

What Should We Be Screening Law Enforcement Applicants For?

Obviously, screening applicants for mental health and substance abuse issues is a baseline that should be in place for every department. The two largest issues that the public has with policing today are 1) Generally, the abuse of power and gratuitous violence perpetrated by police officers; and 2) Specifically, systemic racism that is sometimes blatant but may also manifest as unconscious bias. Training is needed to achieve change on either issue, such as effective training on how to deal with mentally ill subjects, de-escalation, and crisis intervention. Effective pre-screening for mental illness and substance abuse should go a long way towards building a less violent police force.

Research has proven that, like every other stage of the criminal justice process, law enforcement shows a systemic bias towards minorities. For example, a recent psychological study focused on children showed that police officers (mostly white men) view black children as older than white children which makes them less in need of an officer’s protection and less innocent than white children. The study also demonstrated that police officers were three times as likely to use violence against black or brown children than white children. Officers who showed dehumanizing views of black children were more likely to have used violence against them.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that we could probably devise a pre-screening evaluation that would tell us if law enforcement applicants show racist or biased tendencies towards minorities. But we will not. No one but the most extreme racists would say out loud that we want racist law enforcement officers. Would screening police applicants for racism also accomplish the goal of ensuring that officers “will be able to perform his or her job, will not pose a risk or danger to the public, and won’t create a liability for the department?”

So… why don’t we screen officers for racial bias?

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