What to Know About the Psychological Screening for Police Officers

Image by Nusha Ashjaee 2018 

Perhaps one of the most important but least understood aspects of pre-employment screening for law enforcement and other criminal justice careers is the psychological exam. One of the last steps in the hiring process for police officers, the psychological exam can make or break your chances at a law enforcement career.

It's estimated that more than 90% of law enforcement agencies in the United States require the psychological screening of their applicants. By comparison, only about 65% use a polygraph exam, and 88% employ drug screening.

With so many agencies placing their faith in a psychologist's opinion, many would-be police officers are no doubt wondering what's the big deal with the psych test and what can you do to increase your chances of success?

What Psychological Screening Isn't

Before we discuss what the psych test is, let's talk about what it isn't. Pre-employment psychological screening does not determine a candidate's sanity or lack thereof.

By comparison, only about 65% use a polygraph exam, and 88% employ drug screening.

There are a lot of demands placed upon law enforcement, and a day in the life of a police officer can be emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing. There will be days when you are forced to stand firm yet polite in the face of tremendous verbal abuse, and there will be times when you are exposed to horrific scenes. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is cut out for a career as a cop. While it takes all kinds of personalities to make up an effective police force, there are certain traits all officers should ideally share.

Conversely, there are also certain traits that are agreed to be undesirable in law enforcement officers. The psychological tests tend to focus on identifying those undesirable traits more than looking for those desirable ones. It's important to remember that if your screening finds one or more of those traits, it's not a reflection on your value, your sanity, or your personality. It's just an examination that's narrowly focused toward your suitability to become a police officer.

Psychological Screening as a Hiring Tool

Psychological screening is just one more tool that many police agencies use to ensure they hire the best candidates for the job. It is part of a multi-faceted hiring process that can include a basic abilities test, a thorough background investigation, a credit check, a polygraph exam, physical abilities testing, and medical screening.

The exam is a battery of tests that includes several components. Typically, the exam starts with a pre-test self-interview or evaluation. Next, comes a series of multiple-choice tests or surveys. Finally, there will usually be a sit-down interview with a psychologist.

The evaluation takes into account the totality of all of these components to help the psychologist render a final opinion about the applicant's suitability for the law enforcement profession. That determination is usually expressed in one of two ways: low risk, medium risk, or high risk for hiring; or acceptable, marginal, or unacceptable for hiring.

The Purpose of Psychological Screening

Pre-employment psychological screening evaluates a number of personality traits to help formulate an opinion about whether or not a candidate would be a good hiring choice. According to Dr. Gary Fischler, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and a forensic psychologist whose practice specializes in the evaluation of potential law enforcement officers, those traits include:

  • Impulse control
  • General intelligence
  • Judgment
  • Ability to perform boring or tedious tasks
  • Reasonable courage
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Personal bias or lack of bias
  • Ability to tolerate stress
  • What motivated the candidate to choose law enforcement
  • Dependability
  • Ability to deal with supervision
  • Appropriate attitudes towards sexuality
  • Prior drug use

These particular traits represent areas that have been determined over time to be important areas to explore when evaluating law enforcement candidates. Law enforcement officers are held to a high ethical standard and thus the psychological exam serves as one more way to screen out candidates who may demonstrate unacceptable or undesirable personality traits.

What You Should You Expect During Your Screening

When you arrive at the psychologist's office, the first thing you'll probably notice is the crowd. Often, there are several candidates being evaluated at one time. The good news is, they'll probably be just as nervous as you are.

You'll probably be given an initial questionnaire that will ask you a series of questions about your personal history. Past drug use, what you consider to be your personal strengths and weaknesses, past employment, education, and personal background are all likely to be inquired about.

After the initial survey, you will be presented with a series of multiple-choice personality assessments which will likely include the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), among others. Plan to spend several hours completing these Scantron surveys, which will often be comprised of statements with which you will be asked whether you strongly agree, agree, are neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree. During the personality assessment phase, you will probably encounter the same or similar questions multiple times.

This is by design and helps evaluate your consistency and honesty.

After the personality surveys, you will probably participate in a face-to-face interview with a psychologist. The psychologist will probably ask you questions about the answers you provided on the survey and on your self-evaluation. This is your opportunity to clarify your responses. Once all the phases are complete, the psychologist will make a report of her opinion and forward it to your hiring agency.

The Effectiveness of Pre-Employment Psychological Screening

According to a 2003 study by researchers from Wright University, more than 90% of the over 12,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States use psychological testing as a component of their hiring processes. Given the expense associated with such screening, are pre-employment psychological assessments worth it? Do they even work?

Most agencies utilize personality assessment tools, which have been validated as accurate predictors of behavior over years of study. Because of the vast amount of data available to back up the validity of these tests, police departments and psychologists alike are fairly confident that psychological screening does indeed work.

Psychological Assessments for Police Departments

Interestingly, data suggests that the psych exam typically only screens out about 5% of those tested. With so much on the line, is it worth these departments' money to go to the added expense and effort if they're losing such a small percentage of applicants in this particular phase?

Consider that a larger law enforcement agency may receive more than 1000 applications per month from people hoping to become police officers. Of those 1000 applicants, 50 will be disqualified as a result of the psychological assessment. That's 600 applicants disqualified per year, just for one department.

Imagine the potential cost to the agency and, worse, the community, if those 600 officers, who were found to have exhibited undesirable traits, were given a badge, a gun, and authority. Rather than ask whether the cost of the exam is worth it to the agency, it may be more prudent to ask if it is worth the risk not use psychological screening.

How You Can Pass the Psychological Exam

The first thing you need to do is eliminate the notion of passing or failing the psych test. The better question is, "how can I have the best chance for success on the psychological assessment?"

To be successful, you must first and foremost resolve, to be honest. Most assessments have hidden questions and triggers built into the test to let the psychologist know if you're trying to be deceptive. These include repetitive or similar questions and other questions that will raise red flags if answered a certain way.

The best way to be successful is to be yourself. Answer every question honestly and let the chips fall where they may.

You also want to put your best foot forward and dress for success. Wear appropriate business attire -- ties for men, pants suits or business-appropriate skirts and blouses for women -- and adhere to normal grooming standards. Remember, you're representing not only yourself here, but your employing agency, as well. Be sure to dress the part.

What Happens if You Fail the Psychological Evaluation

It's important not to think in terms of pass or fail, but of whether or not you should be working in law enforcement. If you "fail" the psych, it doesn't mean you're crazy or even that you're a bad person. It should, however, make you take stock and make sure that a career as a police officer is what you want to do.

If, after an honest self-evaluation, you are convinced a law enforcement career is in fact for you, you should try to find out exactly what issues caused the psychologist to consider you to be high risk or unacceptable, and you should consider how to correct those traits. In any case, you will probably have to sit out of the hiring process for a year or longer before you can apply for the same agency again.

There's truly no need to be nervous. Remember to be yourself, be professional and be honest. You are who you are. There's nothing wrong with that. If all goes the way you hope, you'll be working as a police officer in no time. In the event you don't make it through, then it's better to find out the job isn't for you now as opposed to when it could be dangerous for you or someone else.