The history of psychological testing for police

A police cruiser
The question of psychological testing for prospective police officers is part of the ongoing conversation about police and community relations.
Karen Bleier | AFP/Getty Images 2012

Should prospective police officers undergo psychological testing before joining the force?

In many states, including Minnesota, that's part of the hiring process — though there is no national standard for such testing, historian and writer Jack el-Hai explained. In 22 states, it is not required at all.

El-Hai joined MPR New host Tom Weber to talk an article he wrote on the history of psychological tests for police. He traces many of the advancements in the field back to Dr. Douglas Kelley.

Kelley was an American psychiatrist who spent the years after World War II assessing German war criminals. In 1950, he returned to the U.S. and became a police psychiatrist with the Berkeley police force in California.

"Kelley suspected, based on his own personal experience and observations, that many officers were unfit for duty," el-Hai said. The Berkeley police chief allowed him to test prospective officers, and "he found that 23 percent were, in his opinion, unfit for duty."

"He later came to believe that one-third to a half of all American police officers at the time, in the 1950s, were unfit to protect citizens or enforce laws."

The purpose of Kelley's testing, el-Hai explained, was not to identify applicants with mental illnesses, but instead "to weed out the people who have characteristics — characteristics that are common among those of us in the human race — that make it very difficult to do police work."

"Police work is hard work. It requires a great exercise of judgment, patience, not being impulsive, being honest, being truthful, all kinds of things. If you have an applicant who is weak in those areas, that is going to cause problems not only for the officer but for the citizens he or she deals with."

"I would be a terrible officer, I admit it," el-Hai said. "This is an acknowledgment that police work is specialized, it's difficult and the people who do well at it are gifted."

To hear the full discussion of psychological testing for police officers and the work of Dr. Douglas Kelley, use the audio player above.

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