Becoming a Police Officer: The Selection Process (page 3)

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Psychological and Medical Evaluations

These evaluations are generally done after completion of your background investigation. Both are costly to your agency but are meant to save money and problems by assuring that you will be mentally and physically able to perform typical police tasks.

The psychological exam is generally administered in two parts. The first part is a paper-and-pencil test during which you will answer a few hundred questions that ask, among other things, about your personal attitudes and how you describe yourself. Many of the questions ask the same thing in different wording; this is to assure the honesty of your responses. Whatever you may be told by others, it is almost impossible to cheat on a psychological test. The way the questions are worded make it highly unlikely you will be able to fool the exam.

Although the questions may seem odd, many of the tests used by departments have been devised specifically for police or other emergency service candidates. The test is scored to determine your suitability on the basis of whether you are hiding having abused drugs or alcohol, your self-management skills (do you get unnecessarily angry over small issues), how well you can be expected to take direction or work in groups, and your intellectual ability to understand different sets of circumstances.

You will also at some point be scheduled to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist who will interview you to determine whether you meet the requirements for a law enforcement position. You will generally receive one of three recommendations: recommended, recommended with reservations, or not recommended. It is up to your agency to determine how closely it chooses to follow these recommendations. Most agencies are unlikely to hire a candidate who receives a negative evaluation, not only to protect the candidate from emotional problems but also to protect the agency from lawsuits should you become involved in a controversial situation and the results of a negative evaluation are made public.

The medical exam is intended to evaluate both your short-term and long-term health. The medical exam is not the same as physical agility testing. Your agency wants to know if you are healthy enough to perform police-related tasks. Are you able to stand for long periods of time without passing out? Are you able to sit for long periods of time without getting severe cramps in your extremities? If you become fatigued easily you might be unable to withstand the rigors of some assignments. Keep in mind, however, that the medical exam portion is sometimes challenged by applicants—the agency's doctor may say no, but a private physician may disagree.

The long-term concerns revolve around whether you are prone to injuries or ailments that would shorten your career. Early retirements are costly to a police department; not only do most officers who retire early receive a more substantial pension than they would in the private sector, the department must now begin the costly and time-consuming selection process to replace you. It is neither in your nor the department's best interests for you to begin a career that is likely to end prematurely.

A new requirement that many departments include under physical conditions and/or lifestyle is that you be a nonsmoker or nonuser of tobacco products. Originally applied to on-duty conduct, within the past decade many departments have made this a condition of both on- and off-duty conduct. Even when smoking was permitted, officers could not smoke in public; this was an image issue rather than a heath concern, though. This meant that officers who smoked generally did so in their patrol cars or around the stationhouse, resulting in nonsmokers complaining about the dangers of secondhand smoke. This often resulted in a ban on all on-duty smoking. Eventually, primarily in response to medical reports on the dangers to overall health and the rising costs of insurance due to smoking-related ailments, departments began to prohibit smoking at all. Court cases have upheld the prohibition. Today in some agencies using legal tobacco products is as much as cause for dismissal as is the use of illegal substances.

Personal Interview

The personal interview can take many forms. In some agencies, your time with your investigator and with the professionals conducting your psychological and medical exams will also be counted as interviews because those individuals will be asked to assess your communication skills and your responses to predetermined questions.

For some agencies, the interview is a more formal event during which you will meet with a board of individuals who will ask you specific questions about yourself and why you want to be a police officer or who may probe more fully into issues raised by your background investigation. Board participants may also ask you to describe a stressful situation and how you handled it or they might give a typical policing scenario and ask you what you would do (this is generally called a hypothetical). The board may be comprised only of police personnel or may include a number of civilians from other agencies or from community-based groups. Generally, the interview will be taped for later review or in the event board members disagree on your handling of the interview.

What are they looking for? A number of things, including how you present yourself, how you address the group, whether you answer the questions specifically or avoid them, and whether your answers are appropriate for the hypothetical situation you were asked to resolve. Remember the recommendations for meeting with your investigator—dress appropriately and address board members by title or as Sir or Ma'am. Make eye contact with the questioner and with other board members when they speak to you. Try to avoid such verbal pitfalls as beginning each sentence with "um," "you know," or "well." Remember to sit fully in your seat without fidgeting, playing with your jewelry or your hair, or scuffing your feet on the floor. These and similar distractions show a lack of self-confidence or self-control and are likely to weigh in the board's assessment of your suitability for a position.

These pointers may seem obvious, but many people are often unaware of the physical or verbal tics they have. Even if you cannot rehearse the actual interview, you can begin to make yourself aware of how you seem to others and you can begin to eliminate these annoyances well in advance of the personal interview.

Other Selection Mechanisms

Depending on the agency considering you for employment, you may be asked to submit to a polygraph exam designed to determine whether you have been truthful throughout the applicant process. A few agencies also use voice stress testing, which is another way of determining the honesty of your responses. Although many think of the polygraph as a new invention, it was first used by Chief August Vollmer in Berkeley, CA, in 1921.

Polygraphs (or lie detector tests) are administered by trained operators. What you say is less important than the measurement of certainly bodily functions during your replies. Basically, the polygraph device records changes in physiological functions such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Not all states permit results of a polygraph to be used in court, but they may be used in pre-employment screening. If you refuse to take either the polygraph or voice stress test it is unlikely that you will be hired.

One of the most recent concerns of police departments has been officers who are heavily tattooed, particularly if the tattoos appear gang-related or can be interpreted as having racial or sexual overtones. Even if the tattoos are not in themselves controversial, a number of agencies have indicated that none can be visible to the public. This could mean that if you have one or more tattoos on your arms, you could be asked to wear a long-sleeved shirt even during the warmest months of the year. Because departments value uniformity, though, you might be asked to remove or cover your tattoos so that you are not wearing a different uniform from your peers. When a product becomes available commercially it usually means a trend has been detected. Law enforcement magazines have begun to carry ads for sleeves that look like skin to cover highly visible tattoos. Although special agents are not uniformed, federal law enforcement agencies have also recently been discouraging any visible tattoos.

You may find it ironic that as tattoos have become more mainstream and more people, including women, have been getting inked, police departments have become more sensitive to this issue. Part of the reason is that as tattoos have become more common, they have also become more noticeable, resulting in some public complaints about the image of heavily tattooed officers. Many police agencies also believe it detracts from the image of professionalism they are trying to convey.

Although there has been less discussion about visible piercings, it was as recently as the 1970s that police departments began to permit post-style earrings, first among women officers and then men when some complained that the policy of permitting women to wear any earrings while men could not was discriminatory. Dangling earrings worn by either women or men are prohibited because they are a safety hazard. The early policies on earrings that were not safety hazards tended to reflect a generation gap. Most of the senior-level male police setting policy found it difficult to accept that a man would consider wearing an earring. Policies are less well-defined on other piercings, but you should anticipate that any policies that are developed in this area will closely mirror policies on tattoos.

What to do if you have a tattoo? The mature approach is certainly not to get any additional ones. Since having a tattoo removed is costly and painful, it would be wise to wait until you are under serious consideration for a position or have been made a conditional offer of employment to learn the details of your agency's policy and to find out what steps you will be asked to take to comply with that policy. What if you have numerous piercings? Since no one will be concerned about the small holes that may be in your nose or eyebrow, the wisest course of action would be to leave the jewelry at home.

Just the Facts

It can cost a police department $60,000 or more to recruit, hire, train, and equip an officer. For many departments, this amount is double the officer's first year salary, which is why agencies use such a thorough application process. They need to eliminate those who won't be able to handle the job well before they attend the academy.

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