Cover Story

Building the best police force. Catching violent criminals. Securing hospitals.

When public sector organizations need to tackle big problems like these, whom do they turn to? Psychologists, in many cases.

Meet three psychologists using their behavioral expertise to assess and improve the functioning of public agencies in innovative ways.

Determining fitness to bear arms

In 1999, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) decided to arm its medical center police force. One snag: It didn't have a policy to psychologically evaluate potential hires. That's when the VA turned to psychologist Robert C. Gresen, PhD.

Then the acting deputy chief consultant for the VA's Mental Health Strategic Health Care Group, Gresen helped create a formal procedure complete with structured interviews and psychological testing for VA psychologists to conduct psychological evaluations of police officer applicants. Previously, VA psychologists met with a police officer only during an annual interview after the officer was hired, he says.

In creating the policy, Gresen talked to psychologists who conduct evaluations full time and consulted with the Police and Public Safety section of APA's Div. 18 (Public Service).

As the representative for VA psychologists in a four-person work group charged with formulating the final policy, Gresen shared his findings with the other representatives from the VA police, human resources and employee health departments. The group is pleased with the policy results thus far, he says.

"We went from an unarmed force to an armed force using a policy to evaluate new applicants that is consistent with professional practice," Gresen says. "To date, the very few situations where VA police have discharged a firearm have been found to be fully warranted and justified an excellent record given that VA has some 160 medical centers with more than 2,000 armed officers."

In pursuit of better cops

Michael Cuttler, PhD, always fancied himself as a bit of an entrepreneur: He liked the competitiveness of business and the chance to "keep score" of his success. That drive led the North Carolina-based psychologist to leave private practice and found his own company, Law Enforcement Services Inc. (LESI).

LESI consults with law-enforcement agencies, such as municipal police departments and state highway troopers, by leveraging technology to conduct "pre-employment suitability screening evaluations" of potential employees. Cuttler has seen his 16-year-old company grow to serve more than 800 law-enforcement agencies in 14 states.

When he began the company, Cuttler provided about 200 local North Carolina law-enforcement agencies with psychological services such as employee counseling and critical response training.

But LESI decided to concentrate exclusively on pre-employment services. Thanks to the Internet, LESI narrowed its practice but broadened its reach.

"Instead of doing everything for agency A, we do one psychological service for agencies A through Z," Cuttler says.

Cuttler screens potential officers using two patent-pending instruments. These instruments ask applicants about their employment and criminal history, among other factors.

His method screens large groups of potential law enforcement applicants and leaves a pool of strong applicants for example, reducing 200 applicants to 30 but still allows local psychologists to complete one-on-one evaluations with the agency's final candidates, Cuttler says.

"The tests are cost-effective and based in psychological science, which saves clients money yet yields qualified applicants," he says.

LESI also has compiled a database of more than 60,000 test results from applicants over the years. Cuttler meets with clients to learn which applicants weren't hired, which were and who later experienced on-the-job problems, such as disciplinary action for use of force. Then, like an insurance company might do, LESI sorts the applicants based on their outcomes into casualty groups to discover what characteristics make people likely to get rejected, hired or become top cops.

Strong science at the FBI

When the FBI needed psychological data on criminal behavior, clinical psychologist Kristen Beyer, PhD, was up to the task. As a research coordinator in the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Beyer ensures that the bureau produces scientifically sound research on violent criminal behavior.

The center analyzes crimes such as child abduction, sexual victimization of children and homicide. Agents interview convicted offenders to better understand their behavior, and then the FBI passes analyses of the findings to law-enforcement officials nationwide.

Beyer monitors the study protocols and the data that agents collect. During a recent violent criminal apprehension project, she analyzed nearly 800 child abductors' criminal histories and information, such as their sexual deviancy. Her team discovered from that research that child abductors often commit other crimes as well.

"Child abductors have diverse criminal histories, so we can tell police departments not to limit searches for child abduction suspects to only those people who have committed that particular crime," Beyer says. "It's a great example of practical research providing investigators with key information."

FBI agents from many backgrounds, including law and criminal justice, conduct this type of research. Beyer uses her psychological skills to coordinate their efforts and enhance the scientific rigor of her center's studies. For example, she teaches agents about operationally defined terms.

"We must agree on what we mean by 'abduction,' 'stranger' and 'acquaintance,'" she says. "Having that behavioral foundation is critical to understanding the crimes."

FBI research now is based on reliable science as well as agents' experiences, she adds