What to Know About the Psychological Screening for Police Officers

Image by Nusha Ashjaee 2018 

The police psychological exam is perhaps the most important but least understood aspects of preemployment screening for law enforcement and other criminal justice careers. It's one of the last steps in the hiring process for police officers, and it can make or break your chances for getting the job.

It's estimated that more than 90% of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. require psychological screening of their applicants, either before or after receiving a conditional offer of employment. Only about 65% of agencies use polygraph exams, and 88% also employ drug screening.

With so many agencies placing their faith in a psychologist's opinion, many would-be police officers are understandably concerned by what the police psychological exam involves.

What Psychological Screening Isn't

Preemployment psychological screening does not determine a candidate's sanity or lack thereof. It assesses a candidate's suitability for this particular job.

A lot of demands are 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're forced to stand firm yet polite in the face of tremendous verbal abuse, and there will be times when you're exposed to horrific scenes.

It takes all kinds of personalities to handle this and to make up an effective police force, but there are certain personality traits all officers should ideally share. There are also certain traits that are agreed to be undesirable in law enforcement officers. Psychological tests tend to focus on identifying those undesirable traits.

The test isn't a reflection on your value or your personality if your screening finds one or more of these "undesirable" traits.

Psychological Screening as a Hiring Tool

Psychological screening is just one more tool that many police agencies use to ensure that they hire the best candidates for the job. It's 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 primary goal of the exam is to ensure that you have the psychological fortitude to handle the unique demands of police work.

The exam is actually a battery of tests that includes several components. Typically, the exam starts with a pretest 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 with experience in public safety issues.

The evaluation takes the totality of all these components into account to help the psychologist render a final opinion as to 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
  • Acceptable, marginal, or unacceptable for hiring

Assessed Personality Traits

Preemployment psychological screening evaluates a number of personality traits to help formulate an opinion as to whether a candidate would be a good hiring choice. 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, indicates that these 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 to explore when evaluating law enforcement candidates. Police officers are held to a high ethical standard, and the police psychological exam serves as one more way to screen out candidates who might demonstrate unacceptable or undesirable personality traits.

What You Should You Expect

When you arrive at the psychologist's office, the first thing you'll probably notice is the crowd. Several candidates are often evaluated at one time, although your interview should be private. You'll be asked to sign a consent to undergo the process.

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.

You'll be presented with a series of multiple-choice personality assessments after the initial survey. These assessments will likely include the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Plan to spend several hours completing these surveys, which will often be comprised of statements with which you'll be asked to strongly agree, agree, gauge as neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree.

You'll probably encounter the same or similar questions multiple times during the personality assessment phase. This is by design. It helps evaluate your consistency and honesty.

The Interview

You'll probably participate in a face-to-face interview with a psychologist after the personality surveys. The psychologist will ask you questions about the answers you provided on the survey and regarding your self-evaluation. This is your opportunity to clarify your responses.

The psychologist will make a report and forward it to your hiring agency when all phases are complete.

The Effectiveness of Psychological Screening

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

Psychological Assessments for Police Departments

Data suggests that the psych exam typically eliminates about 15% to 20% of those tested, either because they ultimately decide not to pursue the career or because the psychologist doesn't give them a nod of approval. It might be questioned whether it's worth the expense if these departments are losing such a small percentage of applicants, but think about it.

A larger law enforcement agency might receive more than 1,000 applications a month. Of those, maybe 150 to 200 will be disqualified as a result of the psychological assessment. Imagine the potential cost to the agency and, worse, to the community, if those officers who were found to have exhibited undesirable traits were given a badge, a gun, and authority.

How You Can Pass

First and foremost, be honest. Most assessments have hidden questions and triggers built in to let the psychologists know if you're trying to be deceptive. These include 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'll 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 but your employing agency as well. Be sure to dress the part.

Feel free to ask questions if you're unsure of any part of the process, but don't go overboard, picking apart each and every request for information. It's important that you understand what's being asked of you.

What Happens If You Fail?

Rather than thinking in terms of passing or failing, ask yourself whether you should be working in law enforcement. It doesn't mean that you're a bad person if you "fail" the psych exam. It just means that you might not be suited to this particular job. Ask yourself if a career as a police officer is really what you want to do with your life.

Try to find out exactly what issues caused the psychologist to consider you to be high risk or unacceptable. Consider how to correct those traits.

You'll probably have to sit out of the hiring process for a year or longer before you can apply to the same agency again.

In the event that you don't make it through, it's better to find out the job isn't right for you now rather than later when it could present a danger to yourself or others.