Psychological Evaluation of Public Safety Applicants: The 2004 Revised Guidelines of the Police Psychological Services Section

Stephen F. Curran, Ph.D.
Towson, Maryland
Susan Saxe-Clifford, Ph.D.
Encino, California

Co-Chairs, Pre-employment Guideline Revision Committee of Police Psychological Services Section

The psychological service section of the IACP provides guidelines for professional psychological practice to the law enforcement community. At present, there are guidelines for Officer-Involved Shootings, Peer Support, and Fitness For Duty Evaluations in addition to Pre-Employment Psychological Evaluations. The guidelines are intended to reflect currently accepted minimum standards while recognizing that case law, psychometric developments and professional practices issues contribute to these guidelines as an evolving rather than a stagnant document. Guidelines are periodically updated (approximately every five years) to reflect legal,1,2 ethical, organizational, and research developments. The original psychological evaluation guidelines were presented in 1986 to our clients; chiefs and administrators actually involved in the recruitment and selection of public safety applicants. A thorough discussion of the development of the guidelines were previously published in The Police Chief.3

Over the past few years, case law and evolving organizational issues have brought forward new questions and concerns. The 2004 revision (Guideline follows this article) was written with the goal of clarifying new developments and answering the most common questions regarding the psychological screening process. The committee tasked with the current revision was comprised of all members of the psychological services committee who volunteered to serve. The co-chairs were appointed by the current Section chair. Both co-chairs have extensive experience conducting pre-employment psychological evaluations and both have served as chair of the Psychological Services Section and remain on the executive committee.

The revision committee members individually reviewed and commented on the 1998 Guidelines during the summer of 2003. A meeting with the committee was held at the Annual IACP Convention in Philadelphia in November 2003. Consensus was achieved on all but one guideline at the Philadelphia meeting. It was decided that additional research and input from legal and other professionals outside the committee was needed to find language that would satisfy diverse opinion among committee members on the one remaining issue. A number of drafts over several months prompted a lively discussion. The final draft was approved by the committee in 2004.

Guideline Revision

Consumers of these guidelines, especially those familiar with the 1998 version, will notice a few changes. Several items were rewritten to provide clearer guidance. The changes include:

Ethical Standards cited in Overview (addition)

Psychologists must adhere to the Ethical Principles and Standards for practice, including the standards of the American Psychological Association.

Psychological Stability (modification)

16. While a clinical assessment of overall psychological suitability and stability may be made, clinical diagnoses or psychiatric "labeling" of candidates should be avoided when the goal of the assessment is to identify candidates whose psychological traits may adversely effect specific job performance. In all cases, the screening should be focused on an individual candidate's ability to perform the essential functions of the position under consideration.

Use of pre-employment psychological testing post-hire (revision)

19. Care should be taken when using pre-employment test results for purposes other than making pre-employment decisions and for monitoring the candidate during the probationary period. Follow-up research may be conducted with agency approval and where individual identities are protected. Pre-employment reports should not be used for positions not expressly considered by the psychologist at the time of the evaluation.

The guideline revision posing the greatest challenge had to do with what part of the psychological evaluation process can be done pre or post job offer, guideline #11. Not coincidentally, the topic of guideline #11 has prompted the most frequent inquiry by chiefs and police administrators seeking clarification and guidance regarding the psychological screening process. Common questions include: 1. "What constitutes a psychological evaluation?" and 2. "Can the psychologist test or interview an applicant prior to the conditional offer of employment?" Confusion on these points was predictable following the passage of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and subsequent guidance reports by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).4,5 Both police psychologists and their client agencies continue to interpret these documents and resulting screening options in a number of ways. In a 1998 paper, Curran opined that the issue of what is "ADA proof" would be tested in judicial venue (p.90). Issues of psychological tests that include the word, "psychological" and separating psychologist from "health care professional" as defined by the EEOC were uncharted territories.

While developments since the 1998 guidelines have crystallized some of the relevant issues, there remains sufficient ambiguity to warrant careful scrutiny by chiefs and their legal counsel regarding the method of psychological inquiries prior to the conditional offer of employment.

Guideline #11

11. The pre-employment psychological evaluation must be conducted in accordance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). A psychological evaluation is considered "medical" if it provides evidence that could lead to identifying a mental or emotional disorder or impairment as listed in the DSM-IV, and therefore must only be conducted after the applicant has been tendered a conditional offer of employment. Personality tests and other methods of inquiry that are not medical by the above definition and that do not include specific prohibited topics or inquiries may be conducted at the pre-offer stage. However, these assessments are alone not capable of determining a candidate's emotional stability and therefore would not constitute an adequate pre-employment psychological evaluation.

Guideline #11 addresses the frequently asked questions stated earlier. Specifically, the psychological evaluation of public safety applicants is a post-conditional offer of employment procedure. The elements of a psychological evaluation include objective, validated psychological testing and an interview with a licensed psychologist. Any procedures conducted prior to a conditional offer of employment would not constitute a psychological evaluation. With respect to the question regarding whether a psychologist can test or interview an applicant prior to a conditional offer of employment, the 1994 EEOC Guidance states:

What is a Medical Examination?

Definition: A "Medical Examination" is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual's physical or mental impairments or health. At the pre-offer stage, an employer cannot require examinations that seek information about physical or mental impairments or health. It is not always easy to determine whether something is a medical examination. The following factors are helpful in determining whether a procedure or test is medical:
Is it administered by a health care professional or someone trained by a health care professional?
Are the results interpreted by a health care professional or someone trained by a health care professional?
Is it designed to reveal an impairment of physical or mental health?
Is the employer trying to determine the applicant's physical or mental health or impairments?
Is it invasive (for example, does it require the drawing of blood, urine or breath)?
Does it measure an applicant's performance of a task, or does it measure the applicant's physiological responses to performing the task?
Is it normally given in a medical setting (for example, a health care professional's office)?
Is medical equipment used?

In many cases, a combination of factors will be relevant in figuring out whether a procedure or test is a medical examination. In some cases, one factor may be enough to determine that a procedure or test is medical. Example: A psychological test is designed to reveal mental illness, but a particular employer says it does not give the test to disclose mental illness (for example, the employer says it uses the test to disclose just tastes and habits). But, the test also is interpreted by a psychologist, and is routinely used in a clinical setting to provide evidence that would lead to a diagnosis of a mental disorder or impairment (for example, whether an applicant has paranoid tendencies, or is depressed). Under these facts, this test is a medical examination.

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There is no federal, state, or certifying law enforcement commission that requires personality testing prior to the conditional offer of employment. There may be advantages for a public safety agency to consider some form of acceptable (not leading to the identification of mental or emotional disorders) personality assessment, pre-job offer, especially if a large pool of applicants is being processed. Some psychologists advocate personality tests or limited interviews early in the hiring process serve to narrow the applicant pool. Other psychologists advise their clients to find other methods to prioritize the applicant pool. They advise their clients focus background investigations they believe will be most successful. In all cases, an agency should consult with human resources and legal consultants to assess not only whether to conduct pre-conditional tests and/or interviews but to review the overall assessment program on an ongoing basis.


The Police Psychological Services Section is pleased to provide the members of the IACP and the law enforcement community with the revised Pre-Employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines. These guidelines should serve as a readily available reference to public safety administrators and psychologists engaged in the selection and evaluation of applicants by assessing emotional and behavioral factors not assessed in another way. The guidelines comprise the "best practice approach" and represent a consensus of opinion by those charged with developing a document that will be useful to our consumers: IACP. The diverse opinion by committee members points to the fact that this area of practice needs ongoing research.


1. Rapport, A. and Statham, J. (August 2004). Medical Inquiries and Employment References: When Does an Employer Cross the Line? ABA Annual Meeting, Atlanta Georgia.

2. Vetter, G.R. (Winter 1999) Comment: Is a Personality Test a Pre-Job-Offer Medical Examination Under the ADA? Northwestern University Law Review, Winter, 1999, Cite as 93 Nw. U.L. Rev. 597

3. Curran, S.F. (October 1998). Pre-employment Psychological Evaluation of Law Enforcement Applicants. The Police Chief, Vol. LXV, No. 10, pages 88-95.

4. Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (West 1992).

5. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1994), Enforcement Guidance: Preemployment Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Washington, DC: EEOC.

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