Most police departments give recruits a psychological assessment. Federal law enforcement agencies? Not really.
It has long been the norm for major city police departments to require potential officers to undergo psychological evaluations before being granted badges and firearms. But the thousands of agents assigned to the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other Justice Department agencies do not need psychological evaluations to police America’s streets, documents obtained show by NBC News.
That means the federal agency tasked with forcing local police departments to reform their standards, including telling cities like Baltimore and New Orleans to give candidates psychological assessments, is not following its own instructions.
Former federal and local law enforcement officials say the gap in hiring standards is a well-known source of tension between police chiefs and the Justice Department.
“I think the average American believes federal agents are the cream of the crop, they think the DOJ sets the standards, but we don’t even polygraph or psych all of our applicants,” said Jason Wojdylo, a recently retired chief inspector from the US Marshals Service who is now vice president of the Federal Managers Association, an employee association that advocates for law enforcement and other federal supervisors.
Wojdylo used a public records law to track down federal pre-employment screening practices and discovered the disparity between local police and their federal counterparts in psychological testing requirements. He shared the recordings with NBC News.
He also found a lack of consistency within the Justice Department in what its four main law enforcement agencies require of employees. Justice Department documents show that only the Drug Enforcement Administration requires applicants to undergo polygraph examinations and psychological evaluations. The US Marshals Service, the agency that tracks fugitives, requires neither. Federal prison guards also do not have to take either test. The FBI and ATF only ask for polygraphs.
The Federal Managers Association is pushing Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to implement a standard screening process across all law enforcement agencies controlled by the Justice Department.
“All selected candidates undergo standardized background checks for suitability for employment and security clearances where required,” a Justice Department spokesperson wrote in a statement when asked why. a standard psychological assessment was not used within its federal law enforcement agencies.
Referring to all federal law enforcement agencies, Frank Figliuzzi, a former deputy director of counterintelligence for the FBI who contributes to NBC News, said: “We imbue our agents and officers with the immense responsibility that they have, and the fact that many of them engaged in national security work should merit the use of psychological assessment tools.
Current and former federal officials have said that federal law enforcement agencies rely heavily on background checks of applicants, which they say are thorough enough to flag an applicant with psychological issues. The checks, which can take months, often involve investigators traveling across the country or even overseas to interview former neighbors, classmates and co-workers of potential agents. Job applicants are asked to share their financial and medical records and to disclose if they take psychiatric medication and why.
“Agent candidates pass a panel interview, polygraph exam, medical exam, drug test and rigorous background investigation before being onboarded,” the ATF spokeswoman said. April Langwell.
A DEA spokesperson pointed to the agency’s application requirements that an applicant must pass both a polygraph examination and a psychological evaluation.
The FBI and Marshals Service did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
The norm in big city policing
There is no federal data that would show whether the lack of testing has an effect on the behavior of federal law enforcement officers. Unlike major police departments that publish timely data on shootings and use-of-force incidents involving police, the FBI, ATF, DEA, and Marshals Service do not. Federal agencies also do not routinely disclose whether officers have been disciplined or fired for abusive behavior.
According to Department of Justice data, more than 90% of local law enforcement agencies report a requirement for psychological evaluation for their candidates. And about 45% say they ask potential recruits to pass polygraph examinations. Experts say that while psychological screenings are ubiquitous in police departments, the stringency varies.
Small departments sometimes administer tests online, often without separate meetings with psychologists, which is a practice that major city police chiefs avoid. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s largest organization for department heads, released a best practice guide for hiring police officers in 2020 and detailed the use of in-person psychological assessments.
Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Chief Erika Shields, an outspoken critic of federal law enforcement tactics, removed her officers from federal task forces in 2019 when she headed the Atlanta Police Department , citing issues of transparency and oversight. Shields called the lack of psychological testing in federal law enforcement “alarming.”
Shields pointed out that the Louisville and Atlanta police departments perform psychological testing on their applicants and, like the federal government, they conduct extensive background investigations that may include financial reviews and trips to interview applicants. former neighbors and colleagues.
“To put into perspective the value of these comments from psychologists, both in Louisville and at APD, if a psychologist said, ‘I don’t recommend,’ that was an automatic disqualification,” Shields said. “They’re going to be able to identify behaviors that might be problematic in the future. And so you bypass that in the federal agencies that work on the front lines? I just can’t explain why.
Law enforcement experts have said the Justice Department’s hiring standards for its officers represent a “double standard” for police reform. Since the 1990s, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has forced dozens of police departments to change their policies using court-ordered reform plans. Louisville police are under federal scrutiny.
An NBC News analysis of the reform plans, called consent decrees, found that the Justice Department had asked police in Baltimore, Cleveland and New Orleans to give their candidates psychological exams.
LaGrange, Ga., Police Chief Louis Dekmar, former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said it was ironic that agencies under the Justice Department tasked with overseeing police reform were not have no standard practice of pre-employment psychological assessments. .
“The standards, in many cases, are significantly higher at the local, county and state level than in some federal law enforcement agencies,” Dekmar said.
Matthew Guller, a veteran police psychologist and managing partner of the Institute for Forensic Psychology, a company that performs psychological assessments for about 600 police departments in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere, guided NBC News through its process. one week exam.
Potential police recruits meet with him, or a member of his team, for a “battery of tests”, which often includes the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or similar written assessment. Candidates then return for sit-down interviews in which Guller, or a colleague, asks about certain answers and inquires about the results of background investigations.
If a potential recruit’s answers relate to Guller, he asks the police department to dig even deeper into the person’s background. Background investigators of the type that federal agencies rely on, Guller said, “don’t have the training to see patterns of risky behavior, impulsivity, or emotional stress tolerance.” He stressed that federal law enforcement should not rely on background checks or polygraphs without psychological experts.
“They’re missing things,” Guller said.