Thoughts on Police Officer Psychological Exams
Reference is made to your June 8 entry titled Commissioner Montagnino: More Bad Ideas, in which you opine about the commissioner’s comments on the Guidelines for Police Officer Psychological Exams and their application to Saratoga police officer and firefighter candidates.
It appears that your entry was prompted by a May 31 story in the Albany Times Union headlined
“Montagnino says city considering overriding psychological tests for police, firefighters” and a linked editorial published in the June 5 edition of the same newspaper.
The comments attributed to the commissioner of public safety, the initial TU story, and its subsequent editorial seem shot through with substantive errors and misinformed judgments. The June 5 editorial, titled A blown judgment call: Police recruits should be able to pass a psychological evaluation, is predicated on a false premise, and produces a false conclusion.
The referenced May 31 story begins thus:
“After experiencing ‘a remarkable spate of psych eval failures,’ the city's public safety commissioner wants to be able to override the psychological exams that recruits to the police and fire department are now required to pass.
“Commissioner Jim Montagnino said psychologists are determining who he can hire and that several provisional hires have been cast aside because they passed all the benchmarks but failed the psychological exam determining mental fitness for the stressful job.
“ ‘We sat down and reviewed what the law said,’ Montagnino said. Applying that strictly gives a psychologist veto power over that appointment. The law seems to suggest that there is some discretion involved.’ ”
“Montagnino said he would like the psychological exam to be just a consideration, not a determining factor.
The factual errors in the story - which we will get to shortly - were then carried forward, further misrepresenting the statutory and regulatory guidelines and misleading a credulous public. To be sure, the commissioner seems to have sown this brouhaha by his own intemperate statements.
On April 19, 2021, the “New York State Professional Policing Act (PPA) of 2021” was signed into law effectuating revisions and updates to numerous statutes in relation to the policing profession. Among several statutory changes, the PPA included amendments to Executive Law directing the Municipal Police Training Council (MPTC) to establish psychological minimum hiring standards for all new police officers.
As a result, changes to the State codes, rules, and regulations put in place new requirements for police employers related to psychological standards.
Pursuant to these new regulations, a psychological assessment is required as a screening tool in determining if a candidate can perform the essential functions of a police officer. The assessment will provide agencies with additional information for determining selection or non-selection of police officer candidates.
To help local governments, police agencies and appointing authorities understand and administer these new requirements the State Municipal Police Training Council prepared Guidelines for Police Officer Psychological Exams. Pertinent sections of those Guidelines are referenced below. I have presented verbatim and highlighted in bold those parts that address how.
“The Guidelines for Police Officer Psychological Exams is intended to allow for the individual needs of each of the police departments in New York State regardless of size or resource limitations. Law Enforcement are encouraged to customize these protocols to meet their regional needs, while being mindful of the intent of the guidelines and regulatory requirements for conducting police officer psychological exams. As with all best practices guidelines adopted by the Municipal Police Training Council (MPTC), these guidelines are non-binding upon agencies, outside of any statutory or regulatory requirements, within New York State. The guidelines are meant to serve as a guide to be used when conducting police officer psychological exams.”
“The following guidelines are designed to serve as a resource regarding the considerations involved with psychological screening of police officer candidates appointed full-time or part-time and in competitive or non-competitive class positions…”
Psychological Assessment Procedure
“Psychological assessments will be used as a component of the overall hiring process for police officer candidates in conjunction with other regulatory requirements such as medical screening, background investigations, physical fitness testing, or other methods.”
Interestingly, the Guidelines devote several pages not on how to access the psychological health of perspective police officers, but rather the competency, experience, training and expertise of the psychologist or psychiatrist selected to administer and interpret the examination.
For example, to determine if the examiner has a true understanding of the duties of a police officer, the Guidelines suggest that the appointing authority consider using a psychologist or psychiatrist with:
Prior experience working as a police officer
Knowledge of Police Officer Job Task Analysis reports
Interviews of police officers
Surveys of police officers
“Ride-alongs” or job shadowing of police officers
Board certification in police and public safety psychology awarded by the American Board of Professional Psychology
Familiarity with police psychology literature regarding pre-employment assessments and interviews of police officer candidates, and
Board certification in police and public safety psychology awarded by the American Board of Professional Psychology.
Neither the commissioner nor the Times Union tell us if those administering these tests are so credentialed. Nor do they tell us if a pass/fail test is used. Since the commissioner uses “failure” in his remarks we must assume so.
But the Guidelines make abundantly clear:
“That if specific cut-off scores are used, there needs to be clear statistical evidence that the scores are valid and have been cross-validated in research studies by the test developer or the agency where the test will be used. The specific cut-off scores and the rationale for using the specific cut-off scores shall be documented.”
And are the tests used specifically validated for police officer candidates?
In the final analysis the statute and the Guidelines vest significant discretion with the appointing officer. We do not know how the Guidelines have been used by the City but there is something flawed with a methodology, testing instrument and interview process that according to the commissioner has produced ’a remarkable spate of psych eval failures.’
Finally, the law and the Guidelines vest the final authority with the appointing officer:
“The appointing authority (i.e., police agency), after careful consideration of the available facts, makes a determination whether or not to select the candidate for employment,”
“Based upon the recommendations of the qualified psychologist or psychiatrist, the local police agency wishing to employ the candidate shall render the final decision …”
We are told that after these recent spate of failures a review of the statute was conducted. The time to review and fully understand the entire process, including its limitations, was before implementing the mandates of the 2021 law and its 2022 Guidelines. Perhaps it was, but we do not know.
Here in Saratoga Springs, psychological testing of police officer candidates was initiated over 30 years ago. This is not to suggest that such testing was as rigorous as now but it does suggest that the city recognized the benefit of such examination in making hiring decisions and was ahead of its time.
Now, however, it would seem a review of the current city protocol is in order.
June 15, 2022