APA News

Police protection, psychology-style

For those who train the nation's police force, nearly nothing is as disheartening—and expensive—as when officer trainees drop out of the police academy two weeks into the program, past the time when alternate candidates could step in and catch up.

To maximize their hiring dollars, particularly in today's unsteady economy, most police departments turn to consultants, such as Michael J. Cuttler, PhD, who specializes in identifying people with the mettle needed to make it through the academy and be effective officers.

While many such consultants screen officer candidates in the final stages of selection or after their training, Cuttler takes a different approach by screening officers early in the selection process, as a way to identify behavioral red flags such as impulsiveness and risk-taking, as well as other potentially troublesome employment issues. His services have proven popular among departments looking to streamline the hiring process and earned him a nod from APA President James H. Bray, PhD, as this month's Innovative Practice Award winner.

"Cuttler's work with law enforcement is cutting-edge and an important practice opportunity for psychologists to serve the public good," says Bray.

Cuttler gives candidates a questionnaire, the onlinePHQ™ he developed through research on the predictive power of biographical data. The tool asks about a candidate's employment, earnings, legal and substance use histories, and is presented in adaptive format to minimize the tendency among job applicants to avoid giving negative information. Cuttler then combines the PHQ scores with scores on cognitive, educational, and personality tests to create a prediction of the candidate's overall suitability for employment as a law enforcement officer. That helps weed out about 40 percent of candidates, including those with a history of bad judgment or thrill-seeking tendencies.

"Police work is 99 percent structured and repetitive work, and only 1 percent excitement and terror," says Cuttler, who has worked with more than 900 departments in 18 states since he started LESI® (Law Enforcement Services Inc.) in 1982. "If you don't screen out people who are highly motivated to experience only the excitement and terror, you can get into trouble, because those are the people who start to create their own excitement."

It's not uncommon for departments that don't screen as rigorously early on, adds Cuttler, to have to cut as many as 20 percent of new officers for serious mental heath problems in the final stages of selection–after the department has offered them a job, the point at which a department can legally review an officer's medical and mental health records.

"That's an unhappy finding for the police department as well as the applicant because they both have invested a lot of time and energy in getting to that final stage," says Cuttler.

While Cuttler spends most of his time on pre-employment screenings, he also helps officers already on the job. In multiple police departments, he's created peer support programs, where he trains officers on spotting early signs of distress in fellow officers and encouraging them to seek help.

"We want to get them help and support before something becomes a serious problem," he says.

—J. Chamberlin