Videos of police officers using questionable force and controversies over fatal shootings surface on a regular basis these days. In response, many police departments have updated their training on deescalation, mental health and implicit bias.
But some cities are taking a more preventive approach.
Most police departments require psychological testing of candidates, but it tends to happen late in the hiring process, usually after a conditional job offer is made. The tests are primarily designed to eliminate applicants who display worrisome characteristics, such as wanting to join the force because you like guns or driving fast.
“Most of our screening tools weed out," says Beth Sanders, an associate professor at Bowling Green University who has spent 20 years studying police recruitment and 10 years looking at what it takes to be a so-called good cop. "We don’t use anything that weeds in."
A New Test
Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have begun placing a focus on interpersonal skills -- and testing for them earlier.
“The current selection process was not necessarily assessing candidates for that trait,” says Dan Hymowitz, director of performance and innovation for Baltimore.
Now, the city uses a new screening test that poses questions to candidates based on videos of officers interacting with the public in situations they might face, such as a driver who is hostile when pulled over or ticketed.
The test it replaced focused on reading comprehension, writing and arithmetic -- cognitive skills as opposed to interpersonal skills and decision-making.
Baltimore started using this test in November after it spent months surveying and interviewing residents and police officers about the top qualities that cops should have. Interpersonal skills, honesty and commitment to service were the most common responses from both groups. D.C. has been giving a similar test to potential police since 2015.
“Decision-making was not a core part of our hiring process before,” says Marvin Haiman, the D.C. police department’s executive director of the professional development bureau. But focusing on this upfront, he believes, will “decrease negative behaviors or outcomes throughout the rest of their careers.”
That’s an outcome Baltimore could use.
The city’s police department is currently under court oversight after a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that it “engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct, ranging from the use of excessive force to unjustified stops, seizures and arrests." Earlier this month, the city’s police chief charged a veteran officer with misconduct, second degree assault and false imprisonment. But the most high-profile misconduct case in Baltimore involved Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in the custody of police in 2015. No officers were convicted in his death.
While police departments say they have always focused on hiring officers with strong integrity and solid character traits, Sanders says it’s not common for them to emphasize emotional intelligence, communication and empathy. She hopes more cities move in the direction of Baltimore and D.C.
“Emotional intelligence is a very good thing to look at,” she says. “Police officers should have the skills to manage their own emotions and recognize the emotions in other people.”
In Memphis, police recruiters are expanding their college outreach beyond criminal justice departments. They now seek out people with backgrounds in psychology and sociology.
“We’ve found a lot of people [in those fields] want to join because they want to give back to their community,” says Fonda Fouche, the city’s talent management officer.
This attention on interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence coincides with police departments’ efforts to hire more minorities and women. In Jersey City, N.J., where the police force was one of the nation’s least representative of the community, the department placed recruiting stations in minority neighborhoods and increased its outreach to minorities. Its latest class of recruits is 84 percent minority and 30 percent women.
Once hired -- but before the police academy -- new officers are enrolled in a four-week training program focused on building relationships with and sensitivity to citizens.
James Shea, the city’s public safety director, says they’ve had “a lot of success in building interpersonal skills, empathy and an understanding of the community and how it values them.”
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