Psychologists working with law enforcement agencies deliver a range of direct psychological services to officers and the departments they serve. Until the 1960s, the disciplines of psychology and law enforcement seemed mutually exclusive. However, since that time the practice of providing psychological services to law enforcement agencies not only evolved, it has expanded. This expansion was due to forward-thinking law enforcement executives recognizing that repeated exposure to a difficult environment takes a toll on the human being. Further, they acknowledged that the unique culture of police work created its own set of stress factors and that few can help but be affected throughout the course of a career. Consequently, many of those responsible for public safety came to realize the need for proactive approaches to optimize the psychological functioning and personal adjustment of officers and deputies and to reduce occupational stress.

Historical Development

Historically, this development was initiated through the applicant screening venue when the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) provided federal funding that enabled the use of psychological tests to screen police officers and sheriffs deputies. As many departments took advantage of LEAA funds, the development of a psychological screening specialization was initiated. To a lesser extent, LEAA funds also were instrumental in psychologists becoming involved in operational areas such as assisting in criminal investigations and developing a hostage negotiation capacity in police departments. The success of those efforts eventually provided support for developing counseling programs for officers, particularly following line-of-duty critical incidents, and for training programs that addressed issues requiring psychological expertise.

Conversely, psychologists were also called on to perform fitness-for-duty evaluations (FFDEs). These mandatory evaluations involved ordering incumbent officers to be evaluated by a psychologist who would determine an officer’s fitness to continue in his or her position. The latter activity was highly sensitive and posed a range of issues quite different from other psychological services that were designed to enhance performance both of the individual officer and their respective departments. Finally, psychologists also engaged in organizational consulting and focused on strategies to enhance organizational performance. Throughout this evolution, the unique stressors experienced by law enforcement personnel were recognized and led psychologists to develop stress management programs to help law enforcement officers better manage their work and personal lives. Today, that emphasis has expanded into programs that focus on wellness and suicide prevention.

Gaining Credibility

Initially, tradition-clad law enforcement was not fully accepting of psychological services and psychologists had to work to gain credibility. In gaining credibility, however, psychologists also had to solve professional practice issues. Questions emerged as to who was the client: the job applicant or the organization; or, for counseling programs, the officer or the organization? The latter impacted confidentiality of communications, generally identified as the cornerstone of psychological services, but a concept that was not fully understood in non-health organizations that operated as closed systems. Although many of these issues were resolved by state laws that govern the practice and licensure of psychologists, the International Association of Chiefs of Police Psychological Services Section recently issued guidelines for police psychological services. Consequently, information on managing some of the more difficult issues is now in the public domain (Police Chief 2005).

The credibility of the police-psychology interface has been further confirmed by findings from three national surveys (Delprino and Bahn 1988; Scrivner 1994; VerHeist, Delprino, and O’Regan 2001). Survey results showed increases in law enforcement’s use of psychologists and a wider availability of services provided for police and sheriffs. These findings, over time, demonstrate that psychology has made a strong impact on policing since it was first introduced in the 1960s. Accordingly, psychology also opened the door and created a level of acceptance for the involvement of other mental health service providers. A 1997 survey by Delprino, O’Quin, and Kennedy demonstrated that not all who provide mental health services to law enforcement are psychologists and that service providers from other disciplines, including police chaplains, now deliver services to law enforcement.

Framework of Psychological Services Provided to Law Enforcement

Psychologists clearly brought new sets of skills to law enforcement agencies. These skills are the core technologies of police psychology and constitute the basic framework of psychological services. They include evaluation, clinical interventions, training, and organizational work and are further detailed as follows:

• Preemployment applicant screening: Psychologists use psychological tests to identify successful candidates for law enforcement and evaluate them on a range of emotional stability criteria that are consistent with suitability for law enforcement work. Critical issues pertaining to this core technology include the need to use objective tests that can be justified in personnel decision making; communicating test results appropriately; engaging in ongoing validation of the assessment process; conforming to civil rights legislation, requirements of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); and adhering to professional practices and psychological standards maintained by the testing industry and professional psychology.

• Fitness for duty evaluation: Once hired, do officers continue to be psychologically fit for duty? This question can arise in relationship to a work-related injury but also in response to questions about an officer’s ability to safely and effectively perform his or her duty because of psychological factors. When behaviors of concern alert commanding officers that an individual officer may need attention, they have the option of making a referral for a fitness evaluation. The nature of FFDEs is different from other psychological services in that they involve a mandatory referral to the psychologist and fitness information is communicated to the department. Thus, confidentiality of communication is limited since the department, not the officer, is the client. The officer needs to be informed of this situation prior to any discussion with the psychologist.

• Psychological counseling: Psychologists assist officers by counseling them in response to an array of personal problems believed to be intensified by police work. Such problems include, but are not limited to, marital conflict and family problems, substance abuse, depression and anxiety, and suicidal tendencies. Recently, new emphasis has been placed on wellness programs.

• Critical incident debriefing: Psychologists provide a crisis response to officers involved in on-duty traumatic incidents, a situation that occurs in public safety occupations at frequencies that exceed those in the general population. This core technology involves short-term debriefing inter-ventions(s) that are designed to help officers adjust to these incidents, and reduce the probability that longer term psychological problems will occur because of the incident.

• Training: Psychologists develop and conduct training sessions for officers ranging from topics as diverse as interview techniques and/or improving communication skills to managing stress to enhancing psychological resilience.

• Forensic/operational: This core technology involves the practical application of psychology to law enforcement operations. It can include assisting the department in criminal investigations, forensic hypnosis, developing a hostage negotiation capacity, and barricade call-out consultation. Recently, psychologists have been contributing their expertise to assisting departments with their antiterrorism strategies and responses.

• Organizational: Psychologists assist organizations, as well as the individual officers, to engage in strategic planning and organizational development to improve the agency’s performance.

Building the Police-Psychology Interface

The widespread acceptance of psychologists by law enforcement was fueled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Training Academy’s initial willingness to take on a convener-facilitator role that helped jump start the capacity for police and psychologists to find common ground. By bringing them together in professional meetings, participants were able to identify, discuss, and write about the primary issues that needed to be addressed. These meetings helped to resolve unique professional issues faced by police psychology, built a network of psychologists working with law enforcement throughout the country, and generally enabled an enhanced understanding between police and law enforcement.

Equally important was the professional acceptance and peer recognition of this unique practice of psychology. Major professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed sections devoted to this facet of psychology. Without that level of support, police psychology may not have become what it is today.

Key events that supported the development of professional police psychology (Scrivner 2005) include the following:

• Five police psychology conferences were hosted from 1984 to 2001 by the Behavioral Sciences Unit of the FBI academy that produced a set of published papers that identified critical issues for law enforcement.

• The formation of the Police Psychological Services Section of the IACP provided a forum for addressing critical issues. The section recently issued a series of guidelines to apply to pre-employment psychological evaluation services, psychological FFDEs, officer-involved shootings, and peer support.

• A Police and Public Safety Psychology Section was developed within the Division of Psychologists in Public Service (Division 18) of the APA. It, too, holds yearly meetings and presents professional papers at the APA’s annual conference.

• Congressional testimony on police stress and family well-being, supported by APA, was the impetus for an amendment to the 1994 Omnibus Crime Act that provided funding for the Corrections and Law Enforcement Family Support Program (CLEF). The program was managed by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and responsible for funding approximately thirty innovative programs (1996-2003) to treat stress, deliver training, and conduct survey research on the needs of law enforcement and correction officers.

• An APA Police Chiefs Roundtable Series has been conducted. Fifteen years after affiliating with APA, police chiefs met with an APA governance committee and sought input on managing problems that affect the quality of American policing.

These developments have strengthened the professional dimensions of the field and facilitated a growing body of police psychology literature and scholarly research.

Delivering Psychological Services

Finn and Tomz (1997) provide a blueprint for how to establish a program of services for law enforcement. They show how models for delivery of services vary. Those that have become prevalent include the use of psychologist consultants, the most common model, or the use of employee assistance programs (EAPs). Some large departments provide a full range of psychological services to officers and the organization through in-house psychological service units, whereas in other departments the unions have assumed this responsibility. And, some confine services to building stress management skills.

Much of the CLEF work provided better definitions of law enforcement stress factors as applied to officers and their families and showed that although exposure to violence, suffering, and death is inherent to the profession, other sources of stress have a greater impact on officers and their families. These sources include light sentences for offenders, unfavorable public opinion of police performance, irregular work hours and shift work, dealing with abused children and child homicides, and ministering to survivors of vehicle crashes. Such is further complicated by organizational stress factors that include the nature of the organization, limited advancement potential, and excessive paperwork. Although officers now view stress as a normal part of their job, they also feel they are under more pressure today than what they experienced even ten years ago (Finn, Talucci, and Wood 2000).

Current Trends

As the police-psychology interface continues to expand, departments are finding new ways to use psychologists. Current trends include seeking assistance to address significant national policing issues such as acrimonious interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens, assistance in ending racial profiling, intervening in police brutality, strengthening police integrity, and developing greater understanding of police officer fear.

The APA roundtables mentioned earlier suggested that psychologists could also help in finding alternatives to arresting the homeless, intervening in the prevalence of hate crimes, developing officer skills in the areas of mediation and anger management, studying how observing violence affects police officers, particularly in relationship to domestic violence, or examining research on stereotypes to help develop interventions for ethnic profiling. Still others, such as the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), have moved their psychologists from the consulting rooms into the precincts in an effort to make them more accessible and less intimidating and to enhance their capacity for proactive outreach (Gelber 2003). These events demonstrate current trends in the activities of psychologists in law enforcement agencies and suggest a level of impact that would have been unbelievable forty years ago.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ongoing concerns about global terrorism, law enforcement organizations and their officers will confront new demands. With those demands will come new stressors as psychologists and officers begin to work in the threat-sensitive environment. However, law enforcement now has a much broader capacity to meet the changing needs of officers, their families, and their organizations because the police-psychology interface has now become institutionalized.

Next post:

Previous post: