The Psychology Of Police Misconduct 


Television media has become obsessed with reporting the failures of law enforcement lately. As much as I want to believe that the media is cultivating this anti-police sentiment, law enforcement officers across this country continue to surprise me with growing numbers of critical incidents where innocent civilians, sometimes children, die at the hands of men and women hired and trained to protect them. In responding especially to incidents with men and boys of color, many mistakes continue to be made which convolute and confuse those of us who believe in our men and women in blue.

These are different times we now live in. The majority of people today are carrying around high-definition video cameras in their pockets. Civil litigation against our police doesn’t really punish bad cops, it punishes taxpayers. Video recordings mean that no longer will our cops get that benefit of doubt in court; no longer will they get those second career-chances when chaos and confusion result in the death of an innocent person.

It has become abundantly clear to me that many of our nation’s police officers fundamentally lack the emotional aptitude required to manage the tumultuous circumstances facing the 21st century police officer. Everyone agrees that something needs to be done, but what would that be? As a former law enforcement officer, having worked in uniformed patrol, undercover drug, violent crimes, investigations and in senior management, I have, of course, very strong feelings regarding what’s been happening.

I just heard yesterday that the family of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old black boy in Cleveland, Ohio, received a settlement of Six Million Dollars from the City of Cleveland for the shooting death of their young son back in 2014. A rookie Cleveland police officer shot and killed him after finding him in possession of a pellet pistol. We could say that it was a lack of training that caused the rookie police officer to fire his weapon so quickly but I believe, more than anything else, it is emotional aptitude that essentially decides the fate of persons entering a law enforcement career path.

The overall professionalism of law enforcement has definitely increased over the previous 30 years and most people in the profession believe that it is low salaries that prevent local and state governments from attracting and acquiring better police candidates. In no way could anyone deny that low salaries do have a detrimental effect on police recruitment efforts. I would think that all college graduates and high-aptitude individuals, who are otherwise non-degree’d, look first at potential pay in their principle decisions over a career path.

That said, I have personally known and worked with police officers who held advanced degrees, a few from Ivy-League institutions, who were willing to do the sometimes rewarding work because of a higher calling or intense personal interest in the humanitarian work police officers can and often do. Working against all of us, however, is this unexplained magnetism that many people have with a career in law enforcement that draws in both the brightest among us who believe it to be a perfect platform to do good as well as equally high numbers of others who are less-evolved, insecure, have emotional, psychological and social problems, and in some cases may even have diagnosable mental disorders.

Fortunately some 28 states, including my own state of Tennessee, have standards, training commissions and state laws that explicitly mandate that a licensed psychologist administer a mental and physical health evaluation as a minimum qualification for potential police recruits. That’s great for those 28 states but there’s still a major problem in that most of these states have exceptionally vague language in their law statutes requiring only that a police candidate “be free from any impairment, as set forth in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)” that would, in the professional judgement of the examiner, affect an applicant’s ability to perform any essential function of the job“. In the end, it’s completely up to the examiner to make that determination. If their particular arsenal of diagnostic tools is limited, so then will the ability of the psychologist to make sound and consistent judgement’s on these men and women who are trusted with the authority, dictated by their own judgement, to stop us; to detain us; to arrest us; or, to kill us.

There is really no consistency among psychologists who perform these pre-employment psychological evaluations for police officers. In one particular police job I worked, the requirement was for me to show up at a Psychiatrist’s office for four days straight whereby the psychiatrist asked me to perform a battery of different styled tests that were designed to examine not only my personality but also my IQ, my hand-eye coordination, and my observational skills. These were all culminated by a three-hour interview with the physician to ensure that my test results weren’t in some way skewed by unknown factors. In other police jobs, mostly in rural jurisdictions where budget is always a concern, I was merely asked to take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI – MMPI²) test then interview with a psychologist and answer questions for 30 minutes. For another job, a psychologist simply interviewed me for an hour then cleared me to be hired.

The MMPI test is by-far the most widely used diagnostic tool trusted by psychologists to determine whether personality disorders might exist with police recruits but the laws governing mandatory testing are so vaguely written that unscrupulous psychologists can and do make judgments from time-to-time that are more consistent with how a Sheriff or Police Chief may view the candidate than with how the candidate fared with the diagnostic test results. I’ve personally seen incidences where police candidates who were personally known and favored for employment by a Sheriff but who could not get an acceptable psyche report from the contracted psychologist were quickly sent to another more agreeable psychologist in order to obtain a guaranteed opposite result. If any Sheriff really wants to hire his deranged fire-starting grandson then he can do it because there’s not enough specificity in these laws to set parameters whereby psychologists can’t easily circumnavigate.

Not only should we be looking at changing our laws and policies that would eliminate the loop holes in our police hiring practices, we should also be examining and modernizing those important diagnostic tests in order to keep up with trending psychological shortcomings.

These psychological evaluations are the last line of defense for keeping individuals out of law enforcement who have the potential of causing great harm to others and to the national trust of government and police work in general. Good law enforcement officers across this country are getting proverbial black eyes from the idiots out there who have no business whatsoever wearing a badge. Not only should we be looking at changing our laws and policies that would eliminate the loop holes in our police hiring practices, we should also be examining and modernizing those important diagnostic tests in order to keep up with trending psychological shortcomings. The tests should be modernized and improved and the laws should be amended to create some real and measurable level of consistency across the country.

But even when candidates are selected who do possess all of the “suitable” characteristics for a good cop, the stressful job duties performed by cops with regularity can impart deep psychological consequences for the individual officer over time. The culture of law enforcement, which is unique to them, makes it very difficult for any police officer to willingly admit when they are over-stressed. The legal requirement for psychological wellness puts an added level of anxiety on police officers who may be experiencing psychological trauma. This is because police officers fear job termination if they expose themselves to having psychological problems.

The other factor that no one is willing to openly discuss is the fact that these situations where police officers typically fail are extraordinarily intense and psychologically demanding. Until you’ve stood in front of a mob while attempting to arrest someone who is not willing to be peacefully arrested, carrying on your side a weapon that could potentially be used against you should you end up in a physical altercation with the suspect, then you really can’t comprehend how difficult it is to be a cop. What is it like to be in that scenario? These “powers” cops have can and do cut in both directions.

How would you feel if that mob was cursing at you, insulting you, and yelling at you while you’re trying to arrest a suspect who is fighting with you? That angry mob is encroaching on you and your suspect in a threatening manner attempting to free your suspect with whatever means; you want to just leave but you’re simultaneously trying to live up to the culture standards of policing which denies you the option of leaving without arresting the suspect, then suddenly feeling what may be an imminent fear of serious bodily injury or death by otherwise unarmed people? If you’re not holding your gun yourself, you’re basically just a holster for an attacker to kill you with your own gun. But you can’t effectively fight with a gun in your hand, and if you kill an unarmed attacker, even if he’s going for your gun, then your life will be changed forever.

What about that rookie cop in Cleveland who made that famed two-second judgement before killing that child? The gun did look like a real gun. If you’re the cop, do you wait till a person is threatening and points the gun at you, putting you in an un-winnable defensive situation or do you take an offensive position and just shoot to stop the potential threat? If you have never been in that kind of situation then it is impossible for you to judge anyone, no matter how egregious their acts may seem. How can anyone make a fair assessment of whether this officer was acting appropriately or inappropriately if we didn’t see what he saw?

If an officer is working in a high-crime neighborhood with an unusually high number of any one race of residents and he himself is not a member of that same racial background and that same officer is constantly involved in numerous altercations where he is physically threatened by large scary groups of protesting persons, then of course that officer can easily develop latent feelings of bigotry toward that race group. That would be a very natural and human reaction, albeit indefensible.

It would be difficult for anyone not to develop an emotional connection similar to that of being a victim of crime when you’ve attempted to act within the law and peacefully make arrests then be systematically accosted by large threatening movements of angry mobs intentionally trying to disrupt your otherwise lawful acts and threaten your life and safety in the process. When you’re the cop in that situation, it doesn’t feel like a validated social awareness movement, it just feels threatening; it makes you angry, puts you in fear, and it compounds the issues of race and crime with yet more fear and more distrust.

These so called victims’ rights advocates don’t just show up and protest when police have acted foolishly. They also rally together with the intent of interfering with active arrests, physically attacking police officers as they are trying to make other arrests. They’re constantly challenging the authority of law enforcement in general. Some of these groups are more akin to terrorist groups than victims’ rights advocates – not only advocating for the rights of individuals who’ve been wronged by government but also for people who clearly were arrested or killed for committing serious crimes or even trying to kill the police such as in the Ferguson, Missouri Brown case – a case still often cited by the media as a legitimate antecedent for the Black Lives Matter movement.

All police officers know that their weapons can easily be grabbed by an attacker then used against them – giving everyone in arms-reach the potential to kill a cop, not just the obviously armed individuals. It’s not necessarily the obvious situations that threaten or kill cops. Michael Brown had his hand on that officer’s gun and had broken some bones in the officer’s face in an attempt to take possession of that gun, ultimately with the intent to kill that officer. But the media focused only on the fact that he wasn’t armed when he approached the cruiser.

If you have your hand on my gun then you’re armed; period! The media takes advantage of situations like this in order to fuel interest in their stories, knowing that law enforcement officials can’t immediately defend themselves through the media as they will later have to do so in court when the family files suit against them for wrongful death. It becomes a political blood bath, fueled by a greedy media then exacerbated by stoic and quiet police officers unwilling and ordered not to talk about it. But statistics tell us that many of the officers who commit the most egregious of these acts are doing so because of severe emotional instability during the event, not bigotry or a lack of experience as many believe.

While 28 states do mandate some sort of psychological testing requirement, there are still a whopping 22 states that do not mandate any psychological assessments. Not only should these psychological inventory’s be required for pre-employment, they should also be highly considered for police officers who have served at least ten years or who have experienced severe traumatic circumstances such as a fatal officer-involved shooting. The psychological health of anyone working in such a fatalistic environment evolves over time. Tests such as these should not be used to help departments terminate tenured officers but instead to determine if corrective or restorative treatments should be made available for those officers who are on a dangerous path of sacrificing their own mental health for their careers.

The unusually alarming statistics for police officer suicides, divorce, and spousal abuse, only touch the surface in illuminating the long-term detrimental effects of working in such a profoundly negative environment. Diagnostic tools should be made available and potentially required by police departments that keep these citizen soldiers mentally healthy throughout their careers. One such thing being talked about lately is the requirement for police officers to undergo systematic counseling, to help officers cope with the stressor’s of police work and as an early detection system for cops who might be troubled.

Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland, Ohio police officer who shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice in November 2014, was just such an officer who’d been previously deemed “unfit” for police duty by his deputy chief in late 2012, after having served only six months as a police officer with the Independence Police Department in Ohio. Then later in March 2014, he managed to get another police job in Cleveland – where he would then go on to shoot Rice within two seconds of arriving on scene to investigate a complaint regarding a boy carrying what turned out to be a harmless pellet pistol.

Loehmann, according to internal records, was also found to have failed the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department’s written cognitive entrance exam when he applied for a deputy sheriff position there in September of 2013. He also couldn’t make the cut at police departments in Akron, Euclid, or Parma Heights, failing similar exams. But despite his previous failures, there was one assessment Loehmann did pass during his brief tenure with the Independence Police Department: his psychological evaluation. Another thing about Loehmann which provides some illumination on many police recruits, he was absolutely determined to be a police officer. Interesting too is that personalities who typically don’t do well on these psychological screenings are the ones who try hardest to land jobs in policing.

Once upon a time I had a friend who’d bent over backwards to get my attention and win my friendship. He also had numerous other cop friends, surrounding himself with associates who carried guns and badges. He’d also applied to be a police officer earlier but failed his psychological. So instead he became a reserve police officer which allowed him to have a badge and a commission card but gave him no particular responsibilities. His motivations for his involvement were completely suspect and selfish, having an intense desire to be respected and an overwhelming want of power over others. This was clearly such a case where the MMPI saved the day but the loop-hole of reserve policing still gave him a way inside. New rules in my state now thankfully require that reserve officers submit to the same psychological tests that full-time officers are required to take.

Loehmann’s psychological assessment, which also evaluated his personality type and behavior, determined him to be fit for the job prior to his hiring. Just a few months later, Independence Deputy Chief Jim Polak recommended Loehmann be terminated, writing that Loehmann was “not mature enough in his accepting of responsibility or his understanding the severity of his loss of control” after he had multiple emotional breakdowns during training. Loehmann was allowed to resign. I don’t know if he took the MMPI or one of the other diagnostic tests but the inconsistent end-results from multiple departments is revealing of the insufficiency in Ohio laws.

Dr. Thurston Cosner, the licensed psychologist who oversaw Loehmann’s psychological evaluation at Independence, noted that Loehmann “seems fairly rigid and perhaps has some dogmatic attitudes that could be problematic in police work” – surprisingly Cosner still recommended his hiring. Dr. Cosner also emphasized that Loehmann “appeared particularly stiff and naïve during his evaluation, which had been expedited to meet a July 2012 hiring date, according to internal emails obtained by Cleveland Scene. Of course he was stiff during his evaluation, he knew from experience that there was a high likelihood that he’d fail.

The revelations of Loehmann’s previous shortcomings have focused a national spotlight on the need for stricter background investigations of police recruits, but less attention has been paid to the question of whether Loehmann’s psychological screening should have determined him unsuitable for the job, even before his post-hire training – and nothing is being said about forcing departments, by statute, to use specific validated testing or to set parameters by measurable standards that automatically disqualify police applicants, despite whether a licensed psychologist is willing to sign off on a recruit or not. I personally don’t see the Police Chief’s and Sheriff’s association lobbyists allowing that to happen.

This case, however, does two things for us. First, it proves just how important mandatory psychological testing is for police candidates. Second, it vividly demonstrates the shortcomings in the actual test and the process by which a psychologist can recommend candidates even when their personality tests deem them to be wholly unsuitable for such a psychologically intense profession.

This case, however, does two things for us. First, it proves just how important mandatory psychological testing is for police candidates. Second, it vividly demonstrates the shortcomings in the actual test and the process by which a psychologist can recommend candidates even when their personality tests deem them to be wholly unsuitable for such a psychologically intense profession.

We must be cognizant of the fact that we citizens give up our individual freedoms to law enforcement officers who have power over us in order for them to safely conduct their difficult tasks. Officers who understand the significance of this and who respect the rule of law do well with that power and mostly do not abuse it. Individuals who are emotionally unsuited for this kind of power use it as a tool for personal satisfaction, irrespective of the rights of citizens.

Laws dictate what authority police officers have and case-law guides them to make good judgments but in the end, it’s a personal opinion made quickly which ultimately decide the actions of a police officer – and police officers often make judgement calls outside the envelope of acceptability. If mistakes weren’t being made daily, our courts wouldn’t continue to create new case law on police misconduct on a daily basis.

The point behind such psychological evaluations isn’t solely to determine whether an applicant has a diagnosable mental disorder, but also to flag potential recruits whose personality types and behavior are unsuited for a job in which sound judgment, cool temperament, and the ability to make rational quick decisions is key, as is emotional stability in tense situations. It’s a determination that plays a substantial role in keeping potentially bad cops from ever soiling the good reputations of good cops – and thus keeping more innocent people alive. It also keeps otherwise decent people from entering a profession in which they are not psychologically well-suited – allowing them an opportunity to ruin their own lives by making judgement calls they’re not qualified to make.

When law enforcement agencies forgo psychological screenings, the result is often violence, some of which results in police brutality litigation. Many of the officers involved in police misconduct cases are known to have either not been given a psychological evaluation during their hiring process or were pushed through the process using inferior testing measures. Consistency is paramount but we cannot have consistency without governmental oversight or a change in the laws of every state. Commissions, such as what we have here in Tennessee, can promulgate rules that have the effect of law, and do some of the things I’ve discussed in this blog.

In my opinion, the problem of low wages only exacerbates the difficulties with hiring unqualified people because the more highly evolved individuals among us are not particularly interested in jobs with low pay, making it very difficult to attract and retain good candidates. The types of people who are naturally attracted to law enforcement can either be idealistic, desiring to do something positive for society or alternatively they may have authoritarian or worse instincts. Maybe they’re just lazy and want a government job with retirement and insurance without having to get sweaty. How would you know the difference without valid testing?

The field and practice of police psychology is still a relatively new and emerging specialization in psychology, officially recognized only recently by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2013. The APA’s committee on professional practices and standards for police psychology is currently in the process of drafting guidelines for all mandated assessments. But guidelines such as these are only a suggestion and licensed police psychologists, as with Cosner in his evaluation of Loehmann, must often conduct their screenings in a rush to meet official hire dates.

A big problem is that psychologists can choose whatever personality inventories they prefer to use and can do whatever other tests they might want to do, all within what the departments are willing to pay for, which creates an inconsistent, unstable protocol for doing psychological police evaluations. These inconsistencies lend themselves to a kind of loophole in which one psychologist may determine that an applicant is unsuitable, but another, using a different set of assessment tools, may determine just the opposite, potentially allowing applicants with violent tendencies into police ranks.

Furthermore, the personality assessments routinely used by psychologists vary greatly in their design, predictive validity, and what traits and behaviors are actually measured. Not every test used is specifically designed with the police applicant in mind or are designed to identify traits such as aggression in police candidates. As previously stated, the most common test used for law enforcement candidates is the MMPI which has proven to be problematic in several aspects, possibly even discriminatory. It has been reported by some psychiatrists that the test’s normative data for police officers under-represents women and minorities; elicits responses weighted toward sexual orientation, sexual deviance, and religious attitudes; but, fails to measure conscientiousness. Who cares if a local cop is gay, there are far more important things to assess than sexual orientation.

However relevant the MMPI test may or may not be, it was certainly designed to be used in conjunction with other assessments and tools, such as interviews and background information, to paint a more comprehensive picture of the candidate. While the MMPI may be really good at identifying individuals who actually suffer from a personality disorder, it does nothing to recognize whether or not a person has the proper personality traits to be a good police officer.

The MMPI essentially screens-out unfavorable profiles instead of screening-in resilient, stable, and conscientious personalities less-likely to abuse the powers of their badge. There remains no consensus as to the ideal personality profile for potential new police recruits and even if one existed, there are no laws that would guarantee that states, counties or municipalities would employ those tests. Also, even if such a test is required for initial screening, the arrest powers and authority that applicant gains upon hire, and the nature of police work itself, is widely accepted by researchers to affect the personality and psychology of experienced police officers throughout his or her career.

A person’s behavior is determined to a large extent by the situations and contexts in which they find themselves – cementing the notion that abusive behavior cannot always be found in a person’s pre-existing characteristics. Without thorough tests designed to eliminate poor police candidates, the incidence of diagnosable mental disorders in police departments will statistically mirror what’s found in the general population which is about 3 to 5 percent. That said, police work often puts officers in situations where, despite the officers intentions, they must exercise power over individuals, frequently in harmful or violent ways, just to do their job. Despite the particular merits that an individual officer may possess, abuse is often part of the job description, thus can expose the officer to a change in psychology that could be emotionally detrimental to that officer over time.

Studies reveal that police officers often experience cognitive dissonance when performing duties that are contrary to their personal beliefs or internalized attitudes. Conflicting social roles can lend themselves toward more fixed attitudes to police work over time, as officers seek to rationalize internal conflicts. Officers can cognitively restructure unethical behaviors in ways that make them seem more socially acceptable, thereby allowing themselves to behave immorally while preserving their self-image as ethically good people. I believe that police officers should be routinely offered counseling, perhaps annually, instead of waiting for them to be reprimanded for bad behavior or found dead by a suicide.

We are asking a great deal of our police officers. We put them in nearly unwinnable situations and ask that they perform those dangerous duties in ways that won’t look so violent when played on television. The problem is that those duties are incredibly violent and it is difficult to make a violent arrest look non-violent on television at any angle. When a person forcefully resists being arrested then the cop has to react with a greater force in order to not only protect himself but also to effect that arrest – that stuff is uncomfortable to watch because you can’t feel what they are feeling or experience what they are experiencing.

Fighting cannot be made to look peaceable no matter how many sophisticated acronyms you can come up with to describe it – and fighting is part of the job description. Over the span of their careers, we teach our cops that violence is ok, speeding is ok, breaking in houses is ok, and whatever it takes to get evidence or get the job done is ok, so long as it is within the boundaries of the law and in an effort to do good. Over time, even the brightest and most responsible among us can lose sight of what all that really means. Can we fix this problem? I honestly don’t know.

2 thoughts on “The Psychology Of Police Misconduct 

  1. I’m glad to see this holds a lot of weight considering your former experience..I do agree that every state needs to be held accountable to the same standards for sure..good read and informative..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Law enforcement certainly doesn’t like the media investigating and reporting the news. They try and label it with so many things to try and throw the uninformed off. Trying to say in many ways reporting on their crimes is a crime against them and humanity too. Google Alert law enforcement misconduct. Stay informed.


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