The shooting death of good Samaritan Justine Ruszczyk Damond is a personal tragedy for her, her family and her community, and it should alarm all citizens of Minneapolis. As a police and public safety psychologist who has specialized in evaluating potential police officers for many years, I, along with many of my colleagues, remain appalled by the long-term apparent indifference of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) to the obvious need for high-quality, accurate psychological pre-employment exams by doctors with substantial training and experience in this highly specialized field. Clearly, the stakes could not be higher, and the consequences of inadequate psychological screening of police officer applicants can reach literally life-or-death proportions.
As the Star Tribune reported on Sept. 6 (“Red flags raised before Noor hired”), there is reason to believe that Mohamed Noor, the now-former officer who shot and killed Ms. Damond in July 2017, had demonstrated “red-flag” personal characteristics in his pre-employment examination but was recommended for hire and subsequently was hired by the MPD. Since I have neither examined Mr. Noor nor reviewed his psychological pre-employment examination in its entirety, I cannot comment on his fitness or suitability for police work. However, the information that is available is sufficient to create suspicion that the psychological testing and evaluation process MPD uses is flawed and invites pernicious consequences such as those to Damond and to others who have been victimized by alleged police misconduct.
Other independent reports have called into serious question the adequacy of the MPD examination process and the level of expertise of its psychological examiners. For example, an American Public Media report in December (tinyurl.com/apm-police) concluded that the examination protocol used to examine Noor “is less rigorous than best practices nationally and the evaluator lacked the proper license” and pointed out that “Minneapolis has fired some of the most qualified police psychologists in the state, and then turned to a succession of mental health professionals with little or no experience in the field (including the ones most recently selected to continue to perform the exams).”
As the Sept. 6 Star Tribune article reported, Noor’s psychological examination report indicated that he “was flagged by two psychiatrists during the pre-hiring evaluation in early 2015 after he exhibited an inability to handle the stress of regular police work and unwillingness to deal with people.” Moreover, he was “more likely than other police candidates to become impatient with others over minor infractions, have trouble getting along with others, to be more demanding and have a limited social support network.” He was also described as “disliking people and being around them.” However, the psychiatric report concluded that since Noor exhibited no signs of a major mental illness, chemical dependence or personality disorder, he was deemed “psychiatrically fit to work as a cadet police officer for the Minneapolis Police Department.”
Let’s examine these startling revelations more closely.
Central to these issues are the criteria or standards that are used to evaluate officer fitness. Minnesota Administrative Rules Chapter 6700.0700, Subpart 1, requires police applicants to undergo a psychological evaluation, “including an oral interview … made by a licensed psychologist to determine that the applicant is free from any emotional or mental condition which might adversely affect the performance of the peace officer duties” (emphasis added). These criteria are much broader and more comprehensive than those apparently used by the doctor who examined Noor, which relied on an absence of major mental illness, chemical dependence or personality disorder to determine fitness. The difference between these sets of criteria is not merely semantic, as it reflects two completely different standards.
The standard applied to Noor is narrow and relies on absence of a diagnosable mental disorder. Using this standard, only a very small percentage of only the most disturbed individuals would be psychologically disqualified from a peace officer job. Indeed, on the basis of the psychiatric report, Noor is unlikely to experience any diagnosable mental disorder.
In contrast, the latter standard is much stricter, requiring that potential officers demonstrate acceptable psychological traits that show suitability to the unique and extraordinary demands of law enforcement. The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Pre-employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines (tinyurl.com/eval-guidelines) specifies these broad personality traits, including “stress resistance,” “interpersonal skills,” “mental stability,” “absence of bias,” “anger management,” “honesty and integrity” and “identification with the community.” Several other authoritative sources also provide guidance and standards related to police pre-employment psychological evaluations that experienced and qualified police psychologists rely upon. It is easy to see how using an appropriate suitability standard vs. an absence-of-mental-disorder standard could have resulted in a different recommendation and outcome for Noor regarding hiring by the MPD.
We must all hold our law enforcement agencies, elected officials and administrators accountable for ensuring that our police officers are properly psychologically screened and hired using only research-based best practices by doctors with the highest levels of specialized training and experience. Police psychological examinations can, indeed, have consequences.
Gary Fischler, of Minneapolis, is a police and public-safety psychologist. He is past chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police/Police Psychological Services Section.