Choosing cops in challenging times like these

“We don’t have mechanisms for identifying terrible people who will do terrible things,” according to Phillip Goff, a psychologist with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. No, we don’t. No test is that good. Still, my colleagues and I are trying. Results are not guaranteed.

When I train psychologists in police selection, I implore my listeners to use data to evaluate others, not their personal, perhaps privileged histories. In 2018, outstanding student loan debt averaged $22,500. The average credit card debt for people who do not pay off credit cards monthly is $9,300. We need these reference points to know who is or isn’t a reasonably responsible person—you know, the ones who will safeguard city property and finish paperwork on time.

Seasons of Life

What’s typical in the young applicants I see? Psychologists call age 18 to 29 the developmental stage of “emerging adulthood.” Today’s young people hold an average of 10 different jobs during these years.

Many are students. Education takes longer than it used to. The end of formal education is typically followed “by years of frequent job changes,” according to a recent edition of American Psychologist. Increasing percentages of young people are postponing marriage and parenthood during these years. Parents, rest easy—it’s not just your kid.

Under 30, good candidates may do bad things. Hit 30, and they’re a lot less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, reckless driving, and risky sex. (That’s risky sex, not casual-but-safe sex.) Maybe a friend’s bad experience sounds an alarm. Alcohol starts to seem too expensive, or too fattening.

Thirty-year-olds merge into the “rush hour of life.” Family responsibilities and the desire for career advancement collide, often straining marriages. In “established adulthood,” approximately age 30 to 45, there are stressors, and physical abilities decline, but typically income goes up. Health, mental health and substance abuse problems aren’t as frequent as they will be in midlife, approximately ages 45 to 60.

In that midlife period, my journal says, 10 to 20 percent of people experience personal crises, defined as, “abrupt changes in lifestyle and productivity” in people who suddenly grasp their professional, personal, and physical limitations. So, yeah, it’s a thing.

Again, psychologists need to know what “normal” is before we can recognize subtle variations of abnormal. Those of us who presume to judge other people’s fitness to enter high-risk careers must drill much deeper and understand how lives are lived in and across different cultural groups, gender/sexual orientation groups, and socioeconomic strata.

Questions and Commitments

Decades ago, I had a colleague who worked hard, as we all should, to weed out law enforcement candidates who seemed to make poor decisions. The problem was that he used the norms of his own cultural group and class to judge others. Having a child outside of wedlock, in his view, was reckless and unwise. He continued to “ding” candidates for this after nonmarital births became common.

Suffice it to say that this unscientific criterion eliminated a lot of qualified black candidates. It was bias—implicit, unacknowledged, and poisonous.

I was motivated to write this as I consider my responsibilities in the wake of our country’s unrest. In pre-employment evaluations, is my knowledge base sufficient? Do I consider enough the vulnerability that is experienced as people of color, the LGBTQ community, the poor and other disadvantaged groups make their way in the world? I struggled with a recent applicant to another agency who returned to work against medical advice and was reinjured. Was that economic need, bad judgment, or both?

I’ve reflected on how young cops are mentored. In the future, I’ll ask experienced candidates more about the guidance they offer. Along with formal training, the expectations of other officers mold rookies’ behavior. As former Camden, New Jersey Police Chief Scott Thomson observed, “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”

I’ll work harder to identify bias in applicants. We all will.

Sharing the Load

Thousands of police pre-employment interviews have taught me a few things the public doesn’t know. I agree wholeheartedly with a police wife’s letter to the Houston Chronicle on June 21. She wrote that her husband “became a police officer to serve and protect. To live a life of meaning among brothers and sisters who want the same thing—justice for all. A safe place to call home. A city to be proud of.” That, plus a steady paycheck.

And the would-be cops who don’t join up for those reasons? They’re supposed to be flunking their psychological exams. Your profession is under scrutiny while mine is getting off without blame. Take note: that’s one more burden you’re carrying for the rest of us.

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