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Expanding Psych Screenings for Colorado Police

In Colorado, the agency that sets the certification requirements for police officers now recommends more psychological evaluations for seasoned law enforcement.
(Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

(Photo: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

This week, Colorado's Peace Officer Standards and Training board recommended stricter psychological evaluation requirements for police officers in the state, according to the Denver Post. Currently, state laws and the POST board—which outlines the criteria applicants must meet to become certified law enforcement officers—only require such exams before officers are initially hired. But even that requirement is not always met, according to the Post, and POST officials want to expand the requirement so that officers receive follow-up evaluations any time they change agencies within the state. There are legal precedents for periodic psychological testing for police officers, but history shows that law enforcement agencies don't always comply with these kinds of recommendations right away.

It's in the best interest of every police department to weed out the applicants poorly suited to becoming cops; aside from the danger that an unqualified cop on the street poses to the public, training police officers is expensive. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, drops roughly $100,000 training each new recruit. If the recruits don't make it on the force, that's a hefty waste of resources.

As such, police departments across the United States have long used psychological exams to flag the unfit. The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended screening every potential hire back in 1967. But, according to a 2003 study of psychological screening procedures, just over half of police departments that responded to a nationwide survey in the 1980s were conducting psychological screenings, even though 90 percent saw a need for the procedures. The number of departments using psychological assessments jumped to over 90 percent by 2003, the study found. For about one-third of those agencies, the psychological tests were considered in conjunction with other selection evaluations—among other things, the departments considered interviews, physical fitness, drug tests, and skill assessments. For the remaining two-thirds, the psychological exam was a filter; a failed exam could remove an applicant from the running.

A 1994 survey found that police psychologists were more likely to provide counseling and training to officers only after an incident involving excessive force, rather than for preventative purposes.

Foregoing these exams can place the public, the officers themselves, and their families in danger. In one early case, a U.S. district court in New York awarded Virginia Bonsignore and her family a sizable settlement after her husband shot her at least five times before killing himself with the off-duty revolvers he was required to carry as a member of the New York Police Department. The Bonsignore family argued that the NYPD was plagued by an institutional mistrust of psychiatrists and psychologists, which prevented officers from reporting both their own psychological problems and those of their fellow officers. If the department had instituted reliable psychological testing procedures, the late officer's family believed that the evaluations would have revealed his mental illness. Which means that he would never have had access to, much less been required to carry, the gun he used to severely injure his wife and kill himself.

Since psychologists first began to work with police departments in the 1960s, their roles quickly expanded beyond screening to include counseling services and stress management training to help officers cope with the job-specific stressors law enforcement officers face.

For police agencies across the country, the steady loop of officer misconduct and public outrage has underscored the fact that a single screening is not sufficient. Some of these highly publicized cases of police misconduct have now given rise to "fitness for duty" evaluations to officers already on the force.

Officers have been known to challenge such evaluations under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits medical examinations that aren't job-related. But courts have typically sided with the agencies. For example, in one notable case, William Watson, a police officer with the city of Miami Beach in Florida, was relieved of duty pending a fitness for duty exam after his erratic and antagonistic behavior came to the attention of his superiors. Watson protested, claiming the city's actions violated the ADA. But the federal court of appeals disagreed:

In any case where a police department reasonably perceives an officer to be even mildly paranoid, hostile, or oppositional, a fitness for duty examination is job related and consistent with business necessity. Police departments place armed officers in positions where they can do tremendous harm if they act irrationally. Contrary to Watson's contention, the ADA does not, indeed cannot, require a police department to forgo a fitness for duty examination to wait until a perceived threat becomes real or questionable behavior results in injuries.

While police departments have the legal means to deploy psychological evaluations to identify unfit applicants and officers, a 1994 survey of police psychologists by the Department of Justice found that the psychologists were more likely to provide counseling and training to officers only after an incident involving excessive force, rather than for preventative purposes.

The new evaluation requirements in Colorado are a step in the right direction for a state plagued by police violence. Colorado has less strict standards for both administering and revoking officer's certifications than many other states. In 2010, Denver had one of the highest rates of police misconduct in the nation. Natasha Gardner wrote about the city's notorious police department for 5280 earlier this year:

Since 2000, Denver police have shot and killed citizens at least 44 times. As of press time, the Denver district attorney's office refused to press criminal charges in every case. If those officials were correct, the DPD's 100 percent justifiable record is a staggering achievement. It's also a dubious one. As much as law enforcement might want to dismiss police shootings as isolated incidents, they become more difficult to ignore when you realize that the DPD has established a long pattern of brutality, as well as a resistance to change so entrenched that it has been called the "Denver Way." It's a cryptic term that describes the legacy of an intransigent police force. Its actions in the past 11 years have led to more than $8 million in settlement payouts to citizens over complaints that often involve brutality, lying, and wrongful deaths.

When it comes to people whose job entails carrying around lethal weapons, the more psych exams the better. But at least one loophole still exists: The scope of those evaluations—the specific tests that agencies choose to carry out—will still vary by department.