Inside the Mind of an Angry Cop: A Q&A with a Police Psychologist | GQ
After 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in Cleveland, the country became aware of just how lax the psychological vetting of officers can be. Investigations into Tim Loehmann, the officer who fatally shot Tamir, revealed that the 26-year-old was found unfit for duty in his previous post with a small police department outside of Cleveland. "Due to this dangerous loss of composure during live range training and his inability to manage this personal stress, I do not believe Ptl. Loehmann shows the maturity needed to work in our employment," wrote Deputy Chief Jim Polak in a memo calling for Loehmann's dismissal. "I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct the deficiencies."
Loehmann joined the police force in Cleveland just two years later. Polak's memo reportedly did not turn up in the city's background check.
Then this weekend, footage taken from a pool party in McKinney, Texas, showed a white police officerbrutally wrestling a young teenaged girl to the ground. She was unarmed and wearing a bikini. When two young men tried to intervene, the officer pulled out his gun. He is now on paid administrative leave.
Given the tremendous stressors and responsibilities of police work, one would think mental health screening and assessment would be a linchpin of the profession. Surprisingly, it is not.
The movement for police and public safety psychology began in earnest with Lyndon Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. In 1967, the commission released areport recommending the use of personality tests to screen police recruits. It took a few decades and outrage over the beating of Rodney King in 1991 for police departments around the country to finally take up that recommendation and incorporate psychological assessment into their hiring processes. Still, tests are not required in every state today and, in fact, the American Psychological Association iscurrently in the process of deciding on guidelines for the psychological assessment of police officers.
With the field in flux and increased attention to psychological screening, GQ spoke with David J. Thomas, a Florida-based instructor, therapist, and former cop, whose practice provides counseling services for law enforcement officers. In his work as a mental health counselor, Thomas does evaluation and testing of police candidates, offers therapy services, and counsels officers in stress management. He shed light on the psychology, good and bad, behind policing.
What are the mental health requirements for police work?
There really are no universal mental health requirements. It's fair to say though that all agencies require that officers be void of any mental disorders. The evaluations officers are given are administered, for the most part, to weed out psychopathologies or mental illness that would prevent them from doing the job.
So what's the psychological profile of a candidate for police work? In terms of temperament and coping skills, what does a good cop have that others don't?
I use a test called the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire in screening officers. The 16PF measures 16 personality traits: warmth, reasoning, emotional stability, dominance, liveliness, rule-consciousness, social boldness, sensitivity, vigilance, abstractedness, privateness, apprehension, openness to change, self-reliance, perfectionism, and tension.
You want an officer to have all of these traits to some degree. Each trait has a scale from one to 10. When I test, I look for officers somewhere in the middle. Anything less than a five I wouldn't recommend.
With warmth, for example, you don't want an officer at a 10, which means they'd just be too emotional, or a one, where they have no emotion at all. At a five or six, they're right where they need to be. They're not going to be overwrought or unattached.
When you're assessing candidates, what's a red flag that someone might not be a good fit for police work?
Aside from their test scores, there are a few other things I look at. I'm the last step before a candidate takes their physical. By the time they get to me, an agency has already done a full background investigation [and] administered a polygraph test. I get all of that. So, I get back a candidate's 16PF scores and review them. If there's a psychopathology—let's say the candidate has depressions—that's going to show up somewhere, most likely on the test. From there, I conduct an interview that lasts from an hour to two hours. The interview is to dig a little deeper into possible issues. So, I make a recommendation based on all of that information.
How common is interviewing in the field? That kind of qualitative assessment seems important to have in addition to the standardized personality test.
It really varies by agency. Many agencies just hire out a company that will administer and score the tests. I believe, though, that sitting down with a candidate is vital.
Racial bias testing has come up a lot in recent months in response to high-profile incidents of alleged police brutality. How common is bias testing in the psychological screening of police candidates?
It's not common at all. With everything going on in the country, I've heard the politicians and others say it's something we need to assess, but it's not a common assessment at this point. Being an African American and having been a recruit, I can tell you that issues of race do come up in the police academy. They came up when I was a recruit and, as a mentor to younger African-American officers, I know that they still come up today.
The issue with bias testing is that setting a threshold is subjective, and there are still questions around the validity of the test themselves. Things like that are hurdles to incorporating bias testing into screening. I may be wrong, but I don't think we're going to it widespread bias testing in policing any time soon.
What are the most common and consistent psychological stressors of the job?
This may be shocking, but the greatest stressors officers face are within the organization. And the research supports that. Officers have a certain degree of paranoia that their department or agency won't support them if things go to hell in a handbasket. That becomes the greatest stressor that they have in doing their job.
Another consistent stressor is boredom. Everybody thinks what you see on Cops is the job. I'd bet that they do 80 hours of filming to get to the few minutes of what we see on television. I've always said the job is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror.
Speaking of terror, in many of the cases where we've seen force used by the police, officers talk about being afraid. What is the role of fear in policing? It would seem that there has to be a balance between being vigilant and being afraid of everything.
There are some officers that will tell you they don't fear anything. If they tell you that, they're lying or they don't need to be working.
The fear is what keeps you honest and it keeps you on your toes. There are others who are too afraid. That's where you see mistakes made. It's where an officer has been too quick to pull the trigger because they didn't properly assess a threat. There's a direct relationship between fear and an officer's response. It should be moderated, though, by an officer's training. Training helps control the fear.
Now, one of the things I try to address when I train officers is that, as police officers, they always have the last word in an interaction. Many think that they have to always show people that they're in control because if they don't they'll seem afraid. They try to mask the fear by being dominant. The opposite ends up happening. It shows they're afraid.
Has there been a shift in the kinds of people who become police officers? I ask because it seems from the stories that we see in the news that cops are younger and younger and seemingly more afraid.
I would say that we're in the middle of a general shift. The group that I entered in with in 1978 is all retiring. There's a changing of the guard. This new generation is different in some ways. When I go and teach defensive tactics in a recruit class, I always ask how many of them have ever been in a fight. It used to be 15, 20 years ago that more than half would raise their hand. Today, few if any have ever been in a fight.
In the conversations you've had with police officers that have been involved in shootings, what comes up most often in terms of what they're thinking and feeling?
The majority of the time, guys are worried about surviving. "Am I going to be home at the end of this shift?" For the most part, they're hoping to not have to shoot anybody. They're hoping they can give a verbal command and get compliance.
After the fact, an officer might seek out psychological services if they're available in their department. In too many cases, though, they're not and those officers can end up in turmoil. But also understand that a lot of cops who are involved in a major incident are afraid to see a psychologist because they fear it can impact their job and ability to go back to work. So, often they just suck it up, say "I don't have a problem" and move forward.
Does police work change the personality of an officer?
Yes. We become introverted. We don't trust people in general. Most of our friends become cops and we don't really socialize with people who aren't cops because that's the group you're most comfortable with. It's important, though, to not get so sucked into the profession that you lose a sense of balance. You have to still be able to see the world outside of the police perspective.
What do you wish readers understood about the everyday psychology of policing?
I wish the public understood that most encounters an officer has are mysteries. In 90% of stops, they have no idea of who they're facing and what state they're in. You don't know until you have a conversation with a suspect. As a result, officers are left in the lurch and susceptible at all times to an attack. We're often behind a step. I also want police to understand though that they work for the public. That public pays their salary and the majority of the people that they'll encounter are good people.
The nation is really focused now on police reform and these high-profile incidents of police use of force. What are your thoughts on all of it as a former cop and a mental health professional who works with police officers?
It's troubling. A lot this stuff has always been around. The public is becoming aware of this side of policing because everyone now has a phone with a camera on it. To me, it's disturbing and it's more than time for police officers to clean up our act. If we don't, the trust in policing will only continue to diminish.