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(p. 55) Functional Competencies 

(p. 55) Functional Competencies
(p. 55) Functional Competencies

David M. Corey

, and Mark Zelig

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date: 26 May 2020

Professional standards and practice guidelines highlight the importance of practicing only within one’s area of competence. But for many practitioners the difficulty in applying this principle lies in defining those competencies necessary for effective practice in a recognized specialty.

In all professions, the “half-life of knowledge” (Dubin, 1972)—an estimate of the time it takes a practicing professional, in the absence of any new learning, to become roughly half as knowledgeable or competent as needed to practice in their field (Neimeyer, Taylor, Rozensky, & Cox, 2014)—rapidly diminishes as the rate of new knowledge production increases. Neimeyer et al. estimated that the half-life of knowledge in forensic psychology, which was calculated to be 7.37 years in 2014, would decrease to 6.58 years by 2024. For police and public safety psychology, they estimated a decrease to 6.56 years from a half-life of 7.78 years. Thus, competency is not static and must be maintained through continuous study, training, and consultation.

Functional Competencies Best Practice

Competency is not static and must be maintained through continuous study, training, and consultation.

Understanding professional competence is clouded by the absence of a universally accepted definition. Epstein and Hundert (2002) proposed that competence is the:

habitual and judicious use of communication, knowledge, technical skills, clinical reasoning, emotions, values, and reflection in daily practice for the benefit of the individual and community (p. 56) being served. Competence builds on a foundation of basic clinical skills, scientific knowledge, and moral development. (p. 226)

Others view professional competence as residing on a continuum. At one end, competence is equated with the minimal skills needed for licensure, representing an enforceable standard of professional conduct (Barnett, Dahl, Younggren, & Rubin, 2007). In this way, professional competence is consistent with the definition of competence used in the civil and criminal justice systems, where competence is present if one possesses the minimum capacity to knowingly and intelligently make a legal decision. On the opposite end of the continuum, competence is viewed as an aspirational goal, reflecting the desire and efforts of professional psychologists to continually improve their skill set and judgment as they strive to become better practitioners.

The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (EPPCC) of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2017) places the responsibility of determining competence squarely on the individual psychologist, but this view has not been universally accepted. In criticizing the self-assessment duty, some (Johnson, Barnett, Elman, Forrest, & Kaslow, 2013) have cited research showing that judgments about one’s competence are not entirely objective because those who lack the requisite skills or knowledge are the least likely to be aware of their deficiencies. This irony has been recognized in many fields of professional endeavor and has been described as the Kruger-Dunning effect, which observes that those who are:

poor performers often suffer a double curse. First, limitations in their expertise cause them to make many mistakes. Second, those exact same limitations prevent them from accurately recognizing just how mistaken their own choices are and how superior the choices of others might be. (Sheldon, Dunning, & Ames, 2014, p. 125)

Johnson et al. (2013) proposed that professionals form networks of colleagues and other relationships in order to provide peer feedback and ongoing critiques of one’s work. There are several members of the Police Psychological Services Section of the International (p. 57) Association of Chiefs of Police who have followed their advice and formed peer groups for this purpose (Corey, Trompetter, & Ben-Porath, 2013; Zelig & Trompetter, 2016).

Regardless of how competence is defined, practitioners must determine that they possess it before accepting a professional engagement. This should not be a problem if one has considerable training in and experience with the subject matter. It is also easy to identify those situations in which the subject matter is clearly beyond one’s competence, where the practitioner knows that they do not have the experience or training to proceed. The most difficult referrals reside in the gray area, where our experience or training is limited, but the deficit might be remedied by further study or consultation with trusted and experienced peers. These gray-area situations require the most careful deliberation before accepting the referral. Mindful that the definition of competence is often situationally defined, and that self-assessment can be clouded by personal blindness or self-serving interests, we suggest using Checklist 2.1: Competency Self-Assessment, to help consider requests for services that lie in the gray area just described.

Checklist 2.1 Competency Self-Assessment1,2,3

Functional Competencies Best Practice

Regardless of how competence is defined, determine that you possess it before accepting a professional engagement.

(p. 58)

Functional Competencies Best Practice

Professionals performing services in an area of specialty practice are expected to adhere to the appropriate specialty guidelines, regardless of how they characterize their professional identities as psychologists.

(p. 59) Conducting an Impartial, Unbiased Evaluation

Limiting involvement only to cases in which the practitioner can be impartial is another aspect of competency. It is our (p. 60) job to make judgments based on relevant, reliable, and empirically based findings. Bias is different. By definition, bias represents the inclusion of systematic error based on irrelevant factors and may result in faulty conclusions and partiality. Bias comes in many forms. We will discuss the overlapping categories of explicit bias, cognitive bias, and implicit bias.

Explicit Bias

Explicit bias is the easiest to identify because it encompasses those forms of bias about which we are consciously aware. We have both declined participation in various referrals because of awareness of our explicit biases, either toward the referral source or the examinee. Obviously, we decline such cases because it places the evaluation at risk for an outcome based on a biased predisposition against or in favor of one of the parties. Failure to recuse oneself when holding an explicit bias not only is unfair to at least one of the parties but also can make it difficult to support the examiner’s summary opinion if it is challenged. For (p. 61) example, in the matter of Denhof v. City of Grand Rapids (2007), the appellate court faulted a police chief for retaining a psychologist to perform a fitness evaluation when it was abundantly clear that the psychologist had already formed an opinion about Officer Denhof’s fitness before he evaluated her. Another less obvious danger of working on a case in which one has a conscious bias is the risk of overcorrecting to avoid that bias. If one has to make a concerted effort to compensate for bias, one should strongly consider recusal.

Functional Competencies Beware

Failure to recuse oneself when holding an explicit bias is unfair to at least one of the parties and also can make it difficult to support the examiner’s summary opinion if it is challenged.

There may also be other situations in which the evaluator does not hold bias, but an examinee may perceive differently. It can be helpful to ask the examinee if they perceive that the examiner has any conflict of interest. In this manner, some of the perceptual issues can be dealt with before the evaluation proceeds too far.4

Cognitive Errors and Bias

Other forms of bias are inherent in our thinking and may even be adaptive in negotiating our living environment. However, when cognitive biases enter the assessment arena, they introduce systematic error. As summarized in the Professional Practice Guidelines for Occupationally Mandated Psychological Evaluations (OMPE Guidelines; APA, 2018), cognitive biases fall into overlapping categories that include, but are not limited to

  1. (a) anchoring bias, in which first impressions about a person are disproportionately weighed;

  2. (b) confirmatory bias, which describes the selective search for evidence supportive of one’s hypothesis at the expense of disregarding information contrary to the hypothesis;

  3. (c) allegiance (also known as adversarial or affinity) bias, in which one favors the retaining party by disregarding evidence contrary to the retaining party’s position; and

  4. (d) attribution error, where undue weight is given to an examinee’s disposition rather than relevant situational characteristics when making the assessment.

(p. 62) To illustrate how insidious bias may be, consider the research on allegiance bias carried out by Murrie, Boccaccini, Guarnera, and Rufino (2013). These researchers distributed a case file of a hypothetical defendant to participants attending a workshop on the administration of the Psychopathy Checklist—a tool commonly used by forensic psychologists to assess the construct of psychopathy, usually in criminal defendants or inmates. Murrie et al. found that workshop participants gave more favorable scores to the hypothetical defendant if they were told that the referral source was a defense attorney than when the subjects were told the client was a prosecutor. The only difference in the files was the attributed referral source.

Although it may be impossible to eliminate all forms of cognitive bias completely, various commentators (e.g., Borum, Otto, & Golding, 1993) have offered strategies to mitigate their effect when conducting forensic evaluations. It is important for evaluators to educate themselves regarding forms of cognitive bias in order to build mitigation strategies into their assessment approach.

Implicit Bias

In Chapter 1 we discussed the importance of avoiding referrals for fitness evaluations when it is clear that the referral source is motivated by political or other factors irrelevant to the examinee’s fitness for duty. Similarly, we should also acknowledge that we all hold implicit biases—biases about which we have little or no awareness (Bertrand & Duflo, 2016; Nosek, Hawkins, & Frazier, 2011).

It is impossible to compensate for a bias about which one is unaware, yet implicit bias can have an extremely deleterious impact on our work product. Our colleagues in internal medicine have studied how implicit biases held by healthcare providers can result in substandard care. In a 15-year retrospective study that looked at medical interventions for New York State residents suffering from peripheral vascular disease secondary to diabetes, black patients were significantly more likely than white patients to be treated with amputation rather than an alternative salvage procedure (Stapleton et al., 2018). To attribute such practice to overt (p. 63) racism overlooks the likelihood that these decisions were made by conscientious healthcare professionals who would honestly deny such bias and, furthermore, assert that they were acting in the best interest of their patients when considering treatment alternatives. Research has indicated that minority group members may hold the same intragroup implicit biases as their majority group counterparts (Nosek, Banaji, & Greenwald, 2002).

Corey (2018) reviewed the literature as it pertained to the malleability of implicit bias. He cited an extensive literature indicating that implicit biases can be gradually unlearned and replaced with nonbiased associations, particularly with those who also show qualities of mindfulness, high levels of executive functioning, metacognitive ability, and self-regulation without excessive self-control. Corey further advocated the intentional selection of police officer candidates who have the cognitive resources to mitigate the deleterious effects of implicit biases because a growing body of research shows that biases are most malleable in persons with high levels of metacognitive ability. In Chapter 5, we return to this topic when we discuss promising psychometric approaches (including several easy-to-administer executive functioning measures) to identify and screen out those most likely to hold immutable implicit biases.

Checklist 2.2: Bias Self-Assessment may help us address the explicit and implicit biases we may hold. Some of these questions are easy to answer; others require considerable reflection, self-assessment, insight, and perhaps collaboration with a trusted colleague.

Checklist 2.2 Bias Self-Assessment5

(p. 64) Checklist 2.2 is not exhaustive. We encourage readers to construct their own checklist based on their self-assessment of vulnerability to bias.

Psychological Evaluator Competencies

Spilberg and Corey (2019) identified eight professional competencies required for effective practice in conducting preemployment psychological evaluations of police candidates. These competencies are incorporated by reference in California (p. 65) Code of Regulations, Title 11, Section 1955(a)(2), which requires psychological evaluators who conduct evaluations of California peace officer candidates to be competent in each area. Corey and Ben-Porath (2018) also applied these competencies to fitness-for-duty evaluations of incumbent officers. We list them next and discuss important aspects of each.

1. Assessment Competence

Definition: Ability to properly gather, analyze, and integrate the full range of pertinent assessment data (e.g., personal health records, background investigation and other personal history information, psychological testing, clinical interview, and observations) to reach a determination of psychological suitability/fitness to exercise the powers of a police officer.

Competence in this area begins with an understanding of the importance of relying on multiple sources of information in these and all other forensic mental health assessments. Evaluations of police officers and candidates are high-stakes assessments for the person being evaluated, the employing or hiring agency, fellow officers, and the public. In the more litigious area of fitness evaluations, they also present high stakes for the psychologist conducting the evaluation, and, as with all forensic evaluations, competence is the foundation of good risk management.

In preemployment evaluations, candidates are generally motivated to present themselves favorably. Indeed, owing to the substantial vetting (e.g., background investigation) of candidates before the conditional offer of employment, police candidates tend to be better adjusted and more virtuous than the general population, which can present a challenge when interpreting underreporting validity scales (i.e., measures of positive impression management or defensiveness).6 Reliance on multiple sources of information, with a focus on corroboration (SGFP Standard 9.02), aids in distinguishing between accurate and deceptive self-presentations, reduces the likelihood of erroneous determinations of suitability or fitness due to false-positive or false-negative test results, and enhances validity when data from one or more sources are unreliable. As discussed in the Standards:

(p. 66)

The availability of information on multiple traits or attributes, when acquired from various sources and through the use of various methods, enables professionals to assess more accurately an individual’s psychosocial functioning and facilitates more effective decision making. When using collateral data, the professional should take steps to ascertain their accuracy and reliability, especially when the data come from third parties who may have a vested interest in the outcome of the assessment. (p. 155)

In Chapter 5, we discuss further the data collection methods used in both suitability and fitness evaluations.

2. Clinical Competence

Definition: Ability to assess the impact of an individual’s emotional or mental condition, and normal and abnormal personality traits and adaptation, on performance as a police officer.

As implied by this competency, the mere existence of a mental health disorder does not preclude safe and effective performance as a police officer. For example, a candidate or incumbent may have a chronic anxiety or mood disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, or adjustment disorder, the symptoms of which are well managed and not job-limiting. This is the reason that the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) requires an “individualized assessment” of the ability of a person to perform a particular job, “one which focuses on the medical condition’s actual effect on the specific” candidate or employee (EEOC v. Hussey Copper Ltd, 2010). Determinations that a person with a mental or emotional impairment is unable to perform the essential functions of a position and/or poses a direct threat in that position must be based, not on subjective judgments, but on the best available objective evidence. This principle is also reflected in the OMPE Guidelines (APA, 2018), which encourage psychologists “to support conclusions about the job relevance of a psychological condition with established scientific and professional knowledge” (Guideline 4). It also is consistent with the strongly worded admonition in Chevron v. Echazabal (2002), in which the US Supreme Court required the medical examiner to produce “a (p. 67) reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence, and upon an expressly individualized assessment of the individual’s present ability to safely perform the essential functions of the job” (p. 85).

Normal-range personality traits, such as conscientiousness, assertiveness, or constraint, also exist on a continuum, and their behavioral expressions are often contingent on context and other factors. The central task of assessment in preemployment psychological evaluations (normal-range traits are generally not at issue in fitness evaluations) is to determine how the candidate’s personality affects or is likely to affect their performance as a police officer. Some candidates, for example, may be shy or socially avoidant in nonwork settings but are nevertheless able to perform adequately in professional roles—much like a stage actor or comedian may be introverted off-stage but dynamically entertaining “in role.” Competence in this area requires the psychologist to have a working knowledge of the psychological requirements of the position and the range of variability in normal and abnormal functioning that can exist without jeopardizing performance as a police officer.

3. Communication Competence

Definition: Ability to communicate the necessary and appropriate findings, conclusions, and recommendations in a manner that is clear and useful to the referring party and that conforms to jurisdictional and institutional requirements.

In most forensic evaluations, particularly those in which a written report is directed to an employer about a job candidate or incumbent, discerning judgment must be used when deciding what information will be disclosed, as we discussed in Chapter 1. These evaluations necessarily involve gathering considerable amounts of private information, not all of which the employer needs to know. The potential for misuse of private health information is especially high. Including in written and oral reports “only information germane to the purpose for which the communication is made” (EPPCC, Standard 4.04) is an established ethical standard. (p. 68) Similarly, SGFP Guideline 11.04 encourages forensic practitioners “to limit discussion of background information that does not bear directly upon the legal purpose of the examination or consultation” and “avoid offering information that is irrelevant and that does not provide a substantial basis of support for their opinions, except when required by law.”

Beyond restricting the disclosure of private information, competent communication also requires avoiding jargon and assiduously linking opinions to the relevant criteria for determining suitability or fitness. Chapter 7 provides more specific guidance on writing reports that address the needs of the hiring or employing agency and facilitate testimony in any future litigation or administrative proceeding.

4. Jurisprudence Competence

Definition: Knowledge and application of statutory, regulatory, and case law pertinent to evaluations of police officers and candidates.

Evaluations of police suitability and fitness are driven not only by clinical considerations but also, as we showed in Chapter 1, by legal ones. Practitioners new to this area of work need not be intimidated by the substantial legal foundation required in this area of practice. The statutes, regulations, and case law cited in Chapter 1 are resources not unlike test manuals and peer-reviewed research literature. When practitioners are familiar with these resources, they facilitate practice rather than inhibit it. On the other hand, ignorance of these resources puts the practitioner at risk not only of legal jeopardy but also of reaching opinions and conclusions that are erroneous, unreliable, irrelevant, and, therefore, unhelpful to the retaining party.

5. Procedural Competence

Definition: Knowledge and application of the psychological assessment procedures meeting jurisdictional requirements, organizational needs, and professional standards of practice.

Procedural integrity in preemployment evaluations requires that they be conducted consistently across all candidates for a given agency, and all evaluations of police suitability and fitness (p. 69) require conformance to legal and professional standards and institutional requirements. An essential procedural component for psychological evaluations in any context is the acquisition of informed consent (or assent) before the start of the evaluation. In some jurisdictions, there are requirements to use certain tests or types of tests, or to conduct the interview only after written testing has been administered and analyzed. These and other assessment procedures are discussed in Chapter 5.

Functional Competencies Best Practice

An essential procedural component for psychological evaluations in any context is the acquisition of informed consent (or assent) before the start of the evaluation.

6. Psychometric Competence

Definition: Understanding of psychological test properties, including test validity, reliability, base rates, test norms, and group differences, and the ability to select appropriate tests for evaluating psychological suitability/fitness and to make proper, accurate inferences from test score results.

This competence is often referred to as assessment literacy—knowledge about testing that supports valid interpretation of test scores for their intended purposes, including knowledge about test development, test score interpretations, threats to valid score interpretations, score reliability and precision, test administration, and use.7 Assessment literacy is most easily acquired with respect to a particular assessment instrument through careful review of its interpretive and technical manuals, relevant peer-reviewed studies, and texts providing interpretive guidance.

Practitioners seeking to develop assessment literacy in connection with other instruments can avail themselves of manuals and other texts made available by the test publisher or distributor, as well as by continuing education opportunities, many excellent examples of which are offered by the American Academy of Forensic Psychology.8 The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training also accredits training courses that pertain specifically to competencies in conducting psychological evaluations of police candidates, and these are listed on its website.9

(p. 70) 7. Standards Competence

Definition: Knowledge and application of ethical principles and standards, and professional standards and guidelines, pertinent to psychological assessments of police officers and candidates.

In any area of specialty practice, adherence to relevant standards and professional guidelines is one of the most important strategies for risk management. Standards are mandatory and may be accompanied by an enforcement mechanism. In contrast, professional practice guidelines suggest or recommend specific professional behavior, endeavor, or conduct for psychologists. Guidelines are not mandatory; they are aspirational and “aim to facilitate the continued systematic development of the profession and to promote a high level of professional practice by psychologists” (APA, 2015, p. 828). At the end of this chapter, we briefly summarize several sources of standards and guidelines particularly relevant to evaluations of police suitability and fitness.

8. Occupational Competence

Definition: Knowledge of the essential job functions of police officers, their working conditions and chain of command, and the psychological demands and stressors inherent in the police officer position.

Each of the seven previously discussed competencies is routinely acquired through postgraduate and continuing education and training. Occupational competence, however, requires obtaining knowledge from outside of psychology. In the remainder of this chapter, we provide a brief overview of knowledge relevant to this competence.

The Role of Police Officers in Contemporary Society

The APA (2018) OMPE Guidelines encourage psychologists who conduct occupationally mandated evaluations to obtain an “understanding of the job description and psychologically relevant demands and working conditions of the position [as] a necessary foundation for judgments about the examinee’s ability to perform the essential (p. 71) functions of the position” (p. 191). Toward that end, we next discuss information that suitability and fitness examiners should know as a foundation for conducting these evaluations, followed by a brief discussion of contemporary challenges facing police.

What a Police Psychologist Should Understand About Police Organizations

Police organizations come in many different sizes, and their organizational structures range from the small town police departments, like the Frenchtown Borough (New Jersey) Police Department with a chief of police and three or four patrol officers, to large urban agencies, like the New York City Police Department with a complex organizational structure and nearly 40,000 police officers in 20 operational bureaus and 77 precincts. Following is a brief description of US police agencies, their organizational features, and common police officer work assignments.

Demographics of Law Enforcement Organizations in the United States

The most authoritative source of information regarding the demographics and personnel of law enforcement organizations in the United States is the Bureau of Justice Statistics.10 Reaves (2015), a statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provided the data on the personnel composition of US law enforcement agencies in 2013, based on surveys collected from the nation’s police departments. In summary, Reaves reported the following:

  • There were approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, of which 15,388 were state or local agencies. Federal agencies are broadly divided into military, civilian, and tribal agencies.

  • The total number of sworn officers employed by those agencies was 724,690. While the mean size of the average US agency was 47, the modal size was 10 officers (due to the size of large police departments, e.g., New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia). Only 5% of the nation’s agencies had more than 100 officers.

  • (p. 72) 12% of officers were female, more than double the amount of female officers reported in 1987.

  • In addition to sworn officers, almost all agencies employ civilians in various support services, such as dispatching, recordkeeping, and, in many agencies, crime scene evidence collection and analysis. While support personnel were not as likely to be subject to preemployment screening, probably because they are not required to make deadly force decisions, most of them work in information-sensitive positions.11

Organizational Features of Law Enforcement Agencies

The chief of police is the head of municipal police agencies. This person is typically appointed by the mayor, city council, city manager, or a police commission and usually does not have the protection of a merit system. Similarly, a deputy chief or assistant chief is typically appointed by the chief from within the police department. If the chief or deputy chief was employed by the agency before their appointment to that position and they are relieved of those duties, they typically return to their former (civil service) position within the police department.

In county law enforcement, the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer and is the only elected police official in the United States. Sheriff’s offices typically have the responsibility to patrol and investigate crimes in non-incorporated areas or in incorporated jurisdictions that contract for their services. They also provide court protection services and usually run the county jail.

The management structure of all law enforcement organizations is paramilitary, with a rank structure that designates the chains of command and authority. For a civilian professional to maintain an ongoing relationship with law enforcement agencies, it is important to respect this structure. This often involves channeling communication through the person designated to receive information.

Work Assignments Within Law Enforcement Agencies

An important consideration in understanding the role of a police officer in a municipal, county, or state agency is the size of the agency. Since (p. 73) the modal size of a police agency in the United States is 10 officers, most sworn members are generalists who may engage in activities ranging from patrol and traffic enforcement to criminal investigation. In agencies that hire 100 or more sworn officers, specialized units are the norm, and the work of any particular officer is more circumscribed.

In these larger agencies, uniformed officers are typically assigned to a patrol division, in which the focus is the suppression of crime, preliminary investigations, and building relationships with the community. Other uniformed officers may be assigned to traffic enforcement, where they typically investigate accidents and enforce the traffic code. In these agencies, patrol officers do not usually engage in traffic enforcement, except in those cases in which they observe flagrant violations in their presence or when they conduct traffic stops as a mechanism for determining if the traffic violator is involved in more serious activity. Regardless of one’s assignment in a uniformed division, officers are expected to use discretion and judgment in selectively enforcing various laws. It is not enough to learn the criminal code; an essential job skill is having the judgment to know when and how it should be applied.

Those who work in a uniformed position typically have days off during the week or during only part of a weekend. They often work on legal holidays. Uniformed officers work in shifts, exposing them to a major stressor in police work—sleep and circadian rhythm disturbance (Violanti, 2018).

In many agencies, after a uniformed officer has had sufficient street experience, the officer may apply for positions in investigative areas or may be directly recruited by supervisors who have become aware of their reputation and their abilities in conducting preliminary investigations. Working in a specialized investigation unit, such as property crimes, crimes against children, or bomb squad, allows police officers to pursue an area in which they may hold particular interest or have a preexisting skill. They typically work business hours, with weekends and holidays off. However, investigators assigned to major crimes may respond to the scene of a newly discovered crime, even before the patrol officers have completed their preliminary investigation. Such investigators are subject to being called out to investigate a crime 24 hours a day, (p. 74) 7 days a week. This can be a stressful burden on detectives and their families, causing some to view their prior assignment as a uniformed patrol officer as “the good ol’ days.” In some cases, investigators may eventually request a transfer back to a uniformed assignment. Those who have worked as investigators in larger agencies might also report that one of the advantages of working in patrol, which they may not have appreciated earlier in their career, is the fact that once a shift is over, they typically have no responsibility to follow up on investigations because the cases usually are referred to someone else in an investigative unit. Indeed, many investigators who are assigned to person (as opposed to property) crimes, such as sex crimes or homicide, feel that they are always working because it is difficult to let go of those serious events even after they leave the office.

Some agencies recruit uniformed or plain clothes officers to work in special assignments. These various activities may include titles such as school resource officer, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), canine (dog handler), and undercover assignments. Some agencies may consult a psychologist to help them match these positions with the most compatible candidates. In providing such input, it is important that the psychological consultant not rely on general assumptions about what a position entails because often this information is obtained from the media—and is frequently incorrect or relies on stereotypes. This further underscores the importance of the psychological consultant gaining a first-hand understanding of the demands of the position. This can be accomplished by reviewing relevant research, undertaking formal job analyses, and speaking with subject matter experts.

Functional Competencies Best Practice

In helping employers match candidates to special assignments, it is important that you not rely on general assumptions about what a position entails because often this information is incorrect or relies on stereotypes.

The value of an onsite visit, or “shadowing” officers in these special assignments, also should not be overlooked. Such an experience will often provide invaluable insights into the demands of those positions. Indeed, Mark Twain’s aphorism, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he (p. 75) can learn in no other way,” is particularly true for the psychologist who wishes to have a clear picture of what police officers do. For example, members of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams not only are required to be in top physical condition but also, upon arriving at a SWAT callout (such as during a riot, hostage situation, or terror attack), must maintain a high level of vigilance for prolonged periods, sometimes in adverse weather conditions. They have to be comfortable functioning as members of a team within an environment in which independent, uncoordinated decision-making could be very detrimental to the mission. Such demands may not be apparent to the clinician who views these positions from the outside. Accordingly, a psychologist who assists in filling vacancies on a SWAT team, and who accompanies these officers on callouts, would probably appreciate the importance of selecting candidates who have a track record of team participation, along with excellent attention span, focus, and executive functioning abilities. This is not a good environment for officers who have attention deficits or low tolerance for boredom.

Each of the special assignments mentioned thus far has varying demands for different psychological attributes. Some special assignments come with greater psychological risks than others. For example, officers assigned to investigate child pornography, vice operations, or other forms of undercover work may benefit from policies that restrict the length of time in those assignments. Unfortunately, success in one of these assignments may also require considerable technical training and experience to become proficient—creating a tension between developing expertise versus limiting an officer’s exposure to environments that are particularly psychologically noxious. Given the concern that all police work is psychologically hazardous, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) called for police departments to perform yearly mental health checkups on their sworn officers, a practice that has not been widely implemented.

When a psychologist conducts an evaluation to select individuals for special assignments, there is a particularly important consideration. If one uses tests or asks interview questions that trigger the EEOC’s definition of a medical examination (see Chapter 1), the (p. 76) candidate must be conditionally approved (analogous to a conditional offer of employment) before the evaluation can take place.12

Contemporary Challenges in Policing

Pinker (2018) makes the case that people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and society’s formidable problems will eventually be solved by reason, science, and humanism. Let’s hope so, but meanwhile police work has never been more challenging. These challenges are too numerous to adequately treat in this volume, but those we mention have compelling implications for police officers and the psychological factors underlying their suitability and fitness.

Hales and Higgins (2016) observed that policing can be understood to have instrumental and symbolic roles. The former has to do with issues such as crime reduction, public safety, and prosecution of offenders; the latter is concerned with public perception of safe communities, as well as trust and confidence in, and the legitimacy of, the police profession. These roles, and public perceptions of how successful police are in performing them, are increasingly in conflict because of social change. One such change is reflected in “noncrime demands” on police, which are estimated to account for about 80% of police calls for service (Hales & Higgins, 2016). These calls result mainly from failures in other social service delivery and criminal justice systems, such as mental health, drug, and alcohol treatment; housing; public schools; the courts; and correctional institutions. As the instrumental police role broadens, the number of noncrime contacts with citizens increases. But when responding to noncrime calls for service involving the mentally ill, the homeless, and parties in dispute, the potential for violent escalation also increases, which undermines public assessment of police officers in their symbolic role. A half-century ago, sociologist Egon Bittner (1970) wrote about this inherent dilemma in a police officer’s use of coercive force:

[W]hatever the substance of the task at hand, whether it involves protection against an undesired imposition, caring for those who cannot care for themselves, attempting to solve a crime, helping (p. 77) to save a life, abating a nuisance, or settling an explosive dispute, police intervention means above all making use of the capacity and authority to overpower resistance. . . . There can be no doubt that this feature of police work is uppermost in the minds of people who solicit police aid or direct the attention of the police to problems, that persons against whom the police proceed have this feature in mind and conduct themselves accordingly, and that every conceivable police intervention projects the message that force may be, and may have to be, used to achieve a desired objective. (p. 40)

This inherent conflict in instrumental roles (where coercive force is valued) and symbolic roles (where it is not) is displayed publicly and dramatically in Internet and news media videos of police officers shooting unarmed juveniles and nonwhite subjects. In response, the public has understandably demanded greater police accountability.13

Two trends have emerged from these demands. The first is a growing focus on de-escalation and nonescalation in noncrime contacts. Police officers are now increasingly expected not only to discern when force is required, and to employ only the minimum necessary amount of it, but also to act in ways that negate the need to use force at all. Police administrators also have instituted policies that often result in police officers walking away from noncrime contacts that simply do not justify the risk of escalated tensions that could lead to actions requiring coercive force.

A second trend is the implementation of training designed to correct for implicit bias, which we discussed earlier in this chapter as a risk for evaluator bias. Researchers (e.g., Dasgupta, 2013; Kang & Lane, 2010; Roos, Lebrecht, Tanaka, & Tarr, 2013) have discovered that automatic and unconscious negative attitudes toward members of nominal (and often devalued) groups (e.g., racial minorities, the poor or homeless, the seriously mentally ill) can be gradually unlearned and replaced with new mental associations, but only in persons having the necessary attributes. These consist primarily of executive functions, such as self-awareness, metacognitive ability, working memory, the ability to “mentalize” or (p. 78) form “theory of mind” (i.e., interpersonal perspective-taking), self-regulation, and an internal motivation to promote social justice. Importantly, these same cognitive and attitudinal qualities also facilitate de-escalating and nonescalating behaviors, and point to potentially important areas for assessment in police candidates and officers. Anxiety and mood disorders can have a debilitating effect on self-regulation, and high levels of chronic and acute stress can deplete mental capacity and working memory. Just as “free space” or available rapid-access memory is needed for a computer to carry out its operations, mental capacity and working memory are needed for humans to self-reflect, mentalize others’ thinking, and perform the complex tasks of self-regulation.

Standards and Guidelines That Inform Evaluator Competencies

What follows is a brief summary of six standards and guidelines documents that are especially pertinent to evaluations of police suitability and fitness. Each of these documents is periodically reviewed by the disseminating group; therefore, it is important to ensure that you have the current versions.

  1. 1. Professional Practice Guidelines for Occupationally Mandated Psychological Evaluations (OMPE). The OMPE Guidelines (APA, 2018) is the first APA policy document addressing recommended practices in both preemployment and fitness-for-duty evaluations. The 13 guidelines are organized under three headings: (a) preparing for an OMPE, (b) conducting an OMPE, and (c) communicating OMPE findings.

  2. 2. Preemployment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines (PPE Guidelines). These guidelines reflect the consensus of the Police Psychological Services Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP, 2014). The more than 200 members of the IACP Police Psychological Services Section make up the largest membership group of police psychologists in the United (p. 79) States and Canada. The most recent version of the PPE Guidelines was ratified by the section in 2014, and they were approved and published by the IACP Board of Directors in 2015. The 46 practice guidelines are organized by 14 headings: (a) purpose, (b) limitations, (c) definitions, (d) examiner qualifications, (e) job analysis, (f) disclosure, (g) testing, (h) interview, (i) technology considerations, (j) background information, (k) reports, (l) use of the evaluation, (m) follow-up, and (n) appeals and second opinions. The PPE Guidelines define a preemployment psychological evaluation as a “specialized examination to determine whether a public safety applicant meets the minimum requirements for psychological suitability mandated by jurisdictional statutes and regulations, as well as any other criteria established by the hiring agency” (p. 1).

  3. 3. Fitness-for-Duty Evaluation Guidelines (FFDE Guidelines). As with the PPE Guidelines, the FFDE Guidelines (IACP, 2018a) were developed by the Police Psychological Services Section of the IACP. The most recent version of these guidelines was ratified by the section in 2018, and they were approved and published by the IACP Board of Directors in 2019. The 65 FFDE practice guidelines are organized under 12 topics: (a) purpose, (b) limitations, (c) definition, (d) threshold considerations, (e) examiner qualifications, (f) multiple relationships and conflicts of interest, (g) referral process, (h) informed consent and authorization to release information, (i) evaluation process, (j) report and recommendations, (k) technological considerations, and (l) third-party observers and/or recording devices. An aspect of the IACP PPE and FFDE guidelines that distinguishes them from the other guidelines referenced in this chapter is that they are reviewed for possible revision every 5 years, whereas APA guidelines, for example, are sunsetted or revised after a period of 7 to 10 years.

  4. (p. 80) 4. Preemployment Clinical Assessment of Police Candidates: Principles and Guidelines for Canadian Psychologists (CPA Guidelines). The CPA Guidelines (Canadian Psychological Association, 2013) contain a list of psychological dimensions for use in evaluating police candidates that is very similar to those published by California POST (Spilberg & Corey, 2019). The principles and guidelines are intended to balance “organizational and societal needs with the rights of the candidates and the professional standards of the psychologist” (p. 3). The document comprises two sections: the Statement of Principles, which identifies best practices in preemployment psychological screening of police candidates, and a set of Guidelines for Users, which consists of consensus-based guidelines developed by Canadian practitioners.

  5. 5. Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology (SGFP). The SGFP (APA, 2013) is the only APA-approved set of guidelines that addresses a single specialty in professional psychology. The guidelines are intended to apply to any psychologist who reasonably expects to, agrees to, or is legally mandated to provide expertise on an explicitly psycholegal issue. Inasmuch as psychological evaluations of police officers and candidates are generally guided by a legally defined (i.e., by statute, regulation, administrative rule, or case law) criterion or set of criteria, they are properly conceptualized as forensic practice. That these evaluations also fall into another area of specialty practice—police and public safety psychology—does not alter their forensic nature any more than does the fact that treatment of children falls under both the clinical psychology specialty and the clinical child and adolescent specialty. The 59 SGFP guidelines are grouped under 11 headings: (a) responsibilities, (b) competence, (c) diligence, (d) relationships, (e) fees, (f) informed consent, notification, and assent, (g) conflicts in practice, (h) privacy, confidentiality, and privilege, (i) methods and (p. 81) procedures, (j) assessment, and (k) professional and other communications.

  6. 6. Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (Standards). The Standards (2014) is published jointly by the American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, and National Council on Measurement Education. Although it is self-described as a set of standards, they are not enforceable by the sponsoring organizations. However, the Standards has repeatedly been recognized by regulatory authorities and courts as generally accepted professional guidance that test developers and users of tests follow. As noted in the introduction to the Standards, “Compliance or noncompliance with the Standards may be used as relevant evidence of legal liability in judicial and regulatory proceedings. The Standards, therefore, merits careful consideration by all participants in the testing process” (p. 2).14 Consequently, despite the lack of an enforcement mechanism built into the Standards, they comprise important guidance.

Concerning Board Certification in Police and Public Safety Psychology

Police and public safety psychology is recognized by the APA as one of only 17 specialties in professional psychology. In 2011, the American Board of Police and Public Safety Psychology (ABPPSP) became an affiliated specialty board of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which has been certifying specialists in psychology since 1947 and is the only multiple-specialty board certification organization recognized by the APA. Licensed psychologists desiring to demonstrate their competency in the four domains of this specialty (i.e., assessment, intervention, operational support, and organizational consultation) must first meet generic requirements of the ABPP and then satisfy additional specialty board requirements of the ABPPSP. Those candidates who satisfy this initial credential review are invited to submit a written (p. 82) practice sample (containing, among other requirements, two work samples for the purpose of demonstrating specialist-level competence). Successful candidates are then invited to sit for a 3-hour oral examination conducted by a panel of three ABPPSP-certified specialists. Practitioners who are interested in learning more about what is expected of specialists in each of the four domains of practice in police and public safety psychology will find it useful to review the ABPPSP Examination Manual for a detailed listing of the functional competencies.

There are many ways for a police psychologist to achieve and demonstrate competence, but board certification by the ABPPSP has several distinct advantages:

  1. 1. Its international reputation for high standards attests to consumers and peers alike that the psychologist has met those standards.

  2. 2. It facilitates interstate practice because many states waive a number of examination requirements for ABPP-certified psychologists applying for licensure.

  3. 3. It provides an opportunity for psychologists to have their work reviewed by their peers.

  4. 4. It establishes the board-certified psychologist in a community of other specialists who work collaboratively to promulgate professional standards and guidelines and who engage in a wide range of activities that collectively shape the specialty.

Each of us is board certified by the ABPPSP and the American Board of Forensic Psychology. We encourage all psychologists who practice in police and public safety psychology to visit and consider the rewards of board certification.


1. Malpractice claims are relatively rare events in the lives of forensic psychologists, partly because there is no corpus of case law that clearly defines the standard of care. This results in an absence of an enforceable standard of care in forensic mental health assessments (Heilbrun et al., 2008). (p. 83)

2. For examples, see Krause (2009), who discusses the psychological demands of working undercover, and Powell, Cassematis, Benson, Smallbone, and Wortley (2014), who discuss the perils facing officers who work with internet child exploitation.

3. It may be difficult to find an allied specialist who is also knowledgeable about important legal and organizational parameters that must be followed when conducting a fitness evaluation. For this reason, we have periodically collaborated with consultants who have the needed expertise. In such cases, we may use them as a consultant, or we may write a jointly authored report.

4. For example, on a biographical form completed by examinees before testing and interviewing, they might be asked the following two questions: “To your knowledge, has the evaluator ever had any past contact with you or someone close to you?” and “Do you know of any conflict of interest the evaluator may have in performing this evaluation?” Examinees who answer either question in the affirmative may then be asked for details.

5. We have had a number of informal conversations with various law enforcement officers, whom we were not evaluating, who shared their own stories of experiencing mental illness. Many of these officers were reputed as high-functioning and successful. From these early conversations, we discovered that we had formed a bias in which we assumed that mental illness always resulted in some loss of functional ability in this high-stress and demanding job. These experiences underscored for us the reality that not all people with psychopathology manifest with functional impairments at their job or elsewhere.

6. See Corey and Ben-Porath (2018) and Detrick and Chibnall (2014) for a comprehensive treatment of this topic.

7. Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (2014), p. 216.

11. While most nonsworn personnel are hired without psychological screening, it is important to recognize that dispatching in a large police department may be one of the most demanding occupations in terms of executive functioning and stress regulation. Indeed, analyses performed by the California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission led to passage of 11 C.C.R. § 1959, which stipulates that dispatchers are subject to precisely the same background investigation dimensions, which closely mimic the POST Psychological Screening Dimensions for peace officers.

12. See Corey, D. M. (2007). Analysis of the ADA as it pertains to medical examinations of police officers applying for special assignments. AELE Monthly Law Journal, 501(7). (p. 84)

13. We are mindful that countless encounters occur every day in which police officers use exquisite crisis intervention skills to prevent encounters from ending tragically. However, there is no dispute that unwarranted excessive force responses can have a profound impact on the direct victims, public, and other officers who abhor unprofessional conduct in their colleagues.

14. American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement Education. (2014). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.