Shared Perspectives

In 1982, a small group of psychologists working in police agencies found an APA home in Div. 18 (Psychologists in Public Service). At that time, law enforcement resisted psychology. So, it was extremely gratifying when, 15 years later, police chiefs met with APA leadership seeking input on managing pressing problems that affect the quality of American policing.

Indeed, psychology has made significant inroads into improving functioning of the tradition-clad occupations that are responsible for public safety and law enforcement throughout the country. The work of the five psychologists profiled in this issue represents the breadth of services that are available to police and public safety organizations. A survey by VerHelst, Delprino and O'Regan (2002) confirms that police use of psychological services continues to grow. They support the findings of a national survey (Scrivner, 1994), which showed the impact that psychology has made on policing.

Transforming events

Police departments' acceptance of psychology reflects a major cultural shift in policing and allows other transforming events to occur. For example, psychology's resources could be applied to addressing significant national policy issues, such as the interactions between police and citizens in their communities. Consequently, the growing number of psychologists working with law enforcement argues for psychology to have an even greater influence on public policy and the delivery of police services in this country. The work of the APA Committee on Urban Initiatives (CUI) is one step in this direction. In 1998, CUI incorporated community policing into the committee's portfolio to explore the potential for this innovative police reform to improve relationships between the police and urban citizens.

Community policing, cited as one factor responsible for the dramatic decrease in crime, is based on establishing effective problem-solving partnerships with the community to prevent crime and disorder while improving the quality of life. As such, community policing promotes behavioral change. Therefore, this major criminal justice initiative has a psychological component.

CUI initiated its work by hosting a series of roundtable discussions with police chiefs in conjunction with APA's Annual Conventions. For three consecutive years, CUI met with local police chiefs and the psychologists who worked with them to determine where we could forge stronger alliances.

The dialogue covered a wide range of topics that go beyond delivery of traditional mental health services. Some examples include: identifying the types of assistance needed to end racial profiling, intervening in police brutality, strengthening police integrity and developing greater understanding of police officer fear. Other topics involved examining alternatives to arresting the homeless, responding to hate crimes, and mediation and anger-management training for front-line officers.

The roundtables also addressed psychology's research expertise. These discussions generated research ideas for studying the impact on police officers of observing violence, how violence goes home with officers to become domestic violence, and using the research literature on self-fulfilling prophecies and changing stereotypes to examine ethnic profiling. The CUI initiative came full circle at APA's 2001 Annual Convention when the San Francisco police chief and the sheriff of Los Angeles County participated in a workshop on racial profiling. They discussed their efforts to use community policing to prevent racial profiling.

Maintaining the momentum

These initiatives show steady growth in the partnership between police and psychology. However, we still have more to do to ensure that talk becomes action and influences policies on public safety. Psychology, with a knowledge base that is relevant to so many social issues and the tradition of seeking research-based solutions, is uniquely positioned to maintain this momentum and help to create better lives for people.

The events of Sept. 11 have broadened psychology's role in helping first responders and victims of this tragedy. However, they also create new roles for psychology as police increase their participation in homeland security. Psychology can be an important partner in helping police balance the delivery of law enforcement services to all citizens while facing the challenge of maintaining readiness to respond to public safety alerts.

Ellen Scrivner, PhD, is deputy director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing at the U.S. Department of Justice.