Amid questions over transparency, a top Minneapolis police official last week said the department is reviewing its process for rooting out potentially bad officers before they are hired, trained and sent out onto the streets.
The department manages background checks and physical tests, but it uses outside contractors for psychological screening. Some argue that an obscure system designed to flag police recruits who may have racist or sexist attitudes is actually making it more difficult for the department to hire minorities.
Cmdr. Gerald Moore said he has concerns about the screening process after hearing from candidates who were disqualified after meeting with psychologists hired by the human resources department.
“It is something we have concerns about and we’re looking into it,” he said, while adding that race wasn’t necessarily a factor since the handful of rejected candidates he spoke to all were white.
Prospective officers undergo a series of increasingly demanding drills to test their physical limits, along with exhaustive background checks in which investigators interview the candidate’s friends, relatives, former teachers and others.
Only then are they put through a broad mental evaluation meant to identify any psychological quirks that could make them unfit for police work. After weighing 10 specific areas — including social competence, ability to work as part of a team, tolerance for stress and assertiveness — psychologists offer recommendations about each candidate’s suitability for the job. If denied, candidates must wait a year before applying again, although they first may obtain a second opinion.
Moore, who runs the unit responsible for police recruitment, said he has been approached by several candidates who believe they were unfairly rejected based on the psychological evaluation.
“They look at it from the standpoint that they’re being discriminated against by some form or fashion, and I think they look toward the psychiatrist and don’t feel as though they’re being represented,” he said.
As Moore sees it, the current system lacks transparency, making it difficult to judge whether it’s culturally biased.
Minority candidates nixed
Several veteran black officers complained privately that the rejection of seemingly qualified minority applicants has hurt department diversity, particularly when Minneapolis, like other police agencies, often has a tough time attracting qualified people of color and women. The veteran officers spoke on the condition they remain anonymous so they could speak freely.
Whereas in the past officials worried about a few bad apples slipping past psychologists, some officers said there is a perception that some minority candidates aren’t getting a fair shake. But, Moore said, officials have to get it right.
“The bottom line is we’re going to give this person the power of arrest,” he said. “We’re going to give this person the power of life and death — literally.”
At a time when policing is being scrutinized nationally as never before, question of who is fit to wear the badge has rarely seemed more pressing, said Michelle Phelps, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies police and prison issues. She said psychological screening, popularized in the 1960s, has changed at a time when many departments are undergoing a major philosophical shift that rewards officers with “softer skills” to better defuse potentially dangerous situations, rather than resorting to force right away.
“We don’t just want somebody who can kick down doors,” Phelps said. But she added that it’s hard to know the reason for excluding candidates when the process for doing so lacks transparency.
‘Cloak of secrecy’
Progress has been slow to come, Phelps said, because some departments are wary of change.
That leaves Minneapolis competing with other agencies looking to diversify their ranks for a relatively small pool of top minority and female candidates, said Lt. Bob Kroll, head of the local police union.
Yet because the process is shrouded in mystery, Kroll said, it’s difficult to say why certain candidates are washing out.
“It’s a big cloak of secrecy that they’re operating under, and there’s no transparency, which goes against the chief’s mission statement,” Kroll said.
City officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Diversity remains a major problem for a department that has rarely resembled the city it protects. Although blacks make up about 18 percent of the city’s population, they make up just 8 percent of the department’s 874 sworn officers. Similar disparities exist among the department’s Asian and Latino officers, who comprise 6 percent and 5 percent of the officers, respectively.
Even so, some say that Police Chief Janeé Harteau has been more aggressive than her predecessors in hiring officers from underrepresented groups. For example, candidates with bad credit or who have been convicted of minor crimes aren’t automatically excluded as they might have been in the past, officials say.
There have been bumps along the way.
In 2014, 42 candidates who were rejected by psychologists were put back on the list of eligible recruits after some complained that the mental evaluations were biased. And in 2010, an outside psychologist who screened potential officers was fired after city officials questioned his affiliation with an Illinois-based nonprofit that advocated treating the “problem” of homosexuality. He was later awarded a $210,000 settlement from the city after he appealed.
Forensic psychologist Gary Fischler, who in the past has consulted with Minneapolis police, says attitudes such as racism are difficult to pin down in an interview.
Fischler, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police psychology division, said psychologists try their best to gauge abstract skills like tolerance, empathy and self-awareness in potential recruits, who are routinely asked whether they harbor any prejudices.
“Because understanding your own bias and working against it,” he says, “that could be a good thing, because of their self-awareness, because they don’t want to act unfairly.”