In my day job, I do psychological assessments of employment candidates for corporations and public safety agencies. I test and interview a variety of candidates for jobs ranging from president and chief financial officer to salesman and firefighter/paramedic. By far, I have seen more candidates for police officer positions than for any other. I’ve actually assessed over 9,000 candidates for employment as police officers over the last 30 years. As the years have passed, changes in candidates have become obvious. For example, more of them have trouble with basic arithmetic, writing skills, and focused work habits. I imagine that these changes are related to changes in society’s norms, candidate demographics, and changes in candidates' educational experiences.
Police officer candidates are typically quite young, with most being 19 to 25 years of age. Yet, we expect these young people to have the common sense, judgment, initiative, and restraint to appropriately use their authority to detain, use force, and arrest. Because of the unusual amount of power afforded police officers, psychologists are given a lot more latitude to question candidates about personal matters than what may normally be asked in most job interviews. So, I do ask about marital status, children, health, finances, substance abuse, personal attitudes and opinions, etc.
Just recently, I had a police officer candidate in my office who was unforgettable. She was a 23 year-old woman who had already completed a 40-page long application and had passed through a police department’s group interview (called an “oral board”), thorough background investigation, and polygraph test. She was a graduate of both a local inner city public high school and the for-profit, on-line Kaplan University. Early in her interview:
I asked: Do you have any scars that are bigger than an inch?
She replied: What do you mean by ‘an inch’?
Me: Are you asking what the word ‘inch’ means?
She: Yes, what’s ‘inch’?
Me: An inch is a unit of measurement. Do you know how big that is?
She: Is it like this? (She gestured by holding her hands about 10 to 12 inches apart.)
Me: No, it’s like this. (I gestured by holding my thumb and forefinger one inch apart.)
She: Yes, I have a surgery scar bigger than that.
Now, in all my years of interviewing people, I’ve never met one who admitted that he/she didn’t know what the word ‘inch’ means. How does an English speaking person of normal intelligence (her tests placed her in the normal range, although a little below average), grow up in our country, graduate from high school, graduate from college with a 4-year degree, and not know what an inch is? Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog, then you know as well as I how this happens, but this example is one of the most extreme and dispiriting I have seen. Although she was evaluated as psychologically unsuitable for work as a police officer, it’s interesting that a person with such limited knowledge, which became very apparent in many other ways as I spoke with her, was considered a viable candidate for a job that starts at about $50K per year, has great benefits, and involves very serious responsibilities.
More observations next time.