Excellent Question About Personnel Screening for Public Safety Officers
THE ALL ENCOMPASSING POLYGRAPH
Recently, Cable TV News has focused on polygraph screening for new public safety officers. But this is not something new and certainly is not the whole story. Such exams are permitted under the federal regulations but the sudden new interest piqued my attention. So I listened closer. The news media focused on a very narrow point as the purpose of the screening program. It reported it to be used to identify applicants with discriminatory traits who might use the flag of authority to discriminate against individuals because of their gender, race, creed, color, national origin or sexual orientation. The objective, as stated by the News Media, is well meaning but naive. Thinking of the mechanics to achieve that purpose caused me pause. How does one develop a viable question for polygraph alone that will achieving that objective? I concluded that one does not.
I think at the core of this issue is a significant topic. I have reached out to my colleagues for their point of view. Those responses were very useful in consolidating the thinking. I will share those edited views. Our agency previously performed the full process outlined below:
FLESHING OUT THE WHOLE PERSON
- BACKGROUND INVESTIGATION
- DRUG SCREENING
- PSYCHOLOGICAL INVENTORIES
- STRUCTURED INTERVIEW SESSIONS
- POLYGRAPH EXAMINATIONS FOR TRUTH VERIFICATION
But now we have limited our service to conducting only the pre-employment polygraph exams. We provide that service for a number of public safety agencies in north Texas and we have done so for years. The point is that I am qualified to discuss the issue. We are first reminded that polygraph is but one step in this selection process. Details of that specific aspect will be developed in future commentaries. For now I want to provide the bigger picture.
THE JOURNEY DOES NOT BEGIN WITH A POLYGRAPH EXAM
The public safety officer selection journey begins with a statement by the selecting agency of their qualification parameters which continues right on through the formal probationary period on the job. The physical requirements themselves have changed considerably in recent years with the redefinition of strength and visual acuity requirements plus more blending of gender, race, creed, color, and sexual orientation. It has been suggested, but without empirical evidence, that this diversification and the greater focus on intellectual strengths and demonstrated good behavioral characteristics will alone improve relations with the public. I accept that premise but how do we measure and document those good behavioral characteristics in the beginning? The employing agency must consider the methodologies and economics. There is a ratio of cost to benefits at play, or put in another way, pay it now or pay a lot more later. Let us look at an outline of the process starting with the least expensive first and then expanding.
THE FIRST STEPS: GETTING THE PLAN CLEARED THROUGH THE HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT
Having a solid and approved plan vetted by impacted departments will go a long way toward gaining cooperation and acceptance of the final product. Here are the initial steps:
- The first step is for the applicant to complete a detailed background history questionnaire offered on-line but completed on their own time.
- It is useful to have the submitting applicant bring, on a scheduled basis, the completed form to a designated location and collect fingerprints, DNA samples and photographs.
- Those specimens should be processed and the record recorded for prosperity and detection of impersonation, possible deception or deceit. Some other time I will tell you some horror stories about that.
- Simple physical fitness tests can be witnessed.
- Basic written intelligence tests may be administered.
MOVING THE SURVIVORS FORWARD
For the survivors of those initial steps, their file moves forward. It is best for the background investigator to work off a check list. The investigator can review the applicant’s questionnaire for flash points and make routine records checks. Spot telephone checks could also be made before entering into the more expensive phases. Now moving right along:
- A pre-polygraph questionnaire may be issued on-line to the progressing applicant for completion and returned to the investigator by mail. If you really have it together, the original application and the pre-polygraph questionnaire can be electronic forms on-line.
- When the investigator is ready, he can make an appointment for the applicant to appear for a review and clarification of the data collected to that point.
- While the applicant is waiting for the interview, it may be useful to have that person respond in narrative form to several standardized questions. The responses are sometimes very informative (or startling). [e.g. Q; “Why do you want to be a Deputy Sheriff”? A; “Because I want a badge and gun so I can make people do what I want.”] Step down, next applicant! These formats are professionally available but at this stage the investigator is looking for things that jump out.
- If the investigator is satisfied so far, he can have the applicant take a written psychological test for professional review later.
CHECK YOUR BUDGET APPROVAL
Now comes the more expensive parts. Somewhere along here the Human Resources professionals need to get involved and make an offer of conditional employment so that the rest of the process can move along.
- Then a urine analysis should be conducted using an appropriate drug panel with quality review.
- A professional physical examination needs to be made following the guidelines approved by HR.
- A standardized polygraph examination needs to be scheduled and conducted. The pre-polygraph questionnaire needs to be forwarded to the examiners with comments, concerns or alerts from the investigator.
- A psychological interview needs to be scheduled and conducted. The written portion should have been completed earlier and forwarded to the psychologist for scoring in preparation for the interview.
- An in-depth background investigation is expensive because it is so labor intensive. Clear the chaff before initiating that process and benefit from the highlights gleaned through the other steps.
- Finally, the complete file can be forwarded with recommendations made to the administrators. An oral review board should then be convened and final interviews conducted and the selections made.
- The successful are off to the Academy and hopefully a brilliant experience of intellectual enlightenment. And now the greatest exposure and that is putting them on the street in a probationary capacity. Eventually that winning applicant can finally say, “I am the police” and everybody respects that.
Well there! A piece of cake, huh? But , but the reporter told me we could do that with one polygraph question. Yea, well, she was mistaken.