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How Minnesota determines who’s fit — and unfit — to be a police officer

There’s no perfect screening process. But Minnesota police departments do make an attempt to identify would-be officers that exhibit troubling behaviors.

Minneapolis police officers shown in front of the 4th Precinct during the protests of November 2015.
REUTERS/Craig Lassig

In more than a week since South Minneapolis resident Justine Damond was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer, the who, what, where and when information about the incident has trickled out.

We know, for instance, that Damond called 911 around 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night to report hearing what may have been a sexual assault near her house. The police officers who responded to the call drove down the alley, and that one of them, Mohamed Noor, who was in the passenger seat, shot her as she was standing near the door by the driver’s seat, where Noor’s partner, Matthew Harrity, was sitting.

But we’re still left with the same question that inevitably comes up after every high-profile officer-involved shooting: What made that officer, in that moment, react the way he did? Would another officer in the same situation have reacted differently? Should they have?

The screening process

Predicting how any given police officer will act in a hypothetical situation is basically impossible. But police departments in Minnesota actually do attempt to screen out candidates who might behave in a way unfit for a police officer.

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The state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board requires prospective police to undergo “an evaluation, including an oral interview, [by] a licensed psychologist to determine that the applicant is free from any emotional or mental condition which might adversely affect the performance of peace officer duties.” That’s in addition to making sure prospective officers pass a background check, ensuring they don’t have felonies on their record and making sure they’re a U.S. citizen, among other qualifications.

When it comes to the psychological screening, there is no standard battery of tests, but psychologists who specialize in this type of evaluation often follow guidelines from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said Gary Fischler, a Minneapolis licensed psychologist who specializes in police and public safety psychology. In the past, Fischler has worked with the Minneapolis Police Department.

“In our office, you would be taking 3-4-5 hours of paper and  pencil tests, which would be computer scored,” Fischler said. In general, psychologists might include personality tests, tests that aim to get at any abnormal psychology or psychological issues, intelligence tests or situational surveys.  

“There are research-based, empirical correlations with certain test responses, test patterns, that would indicate a higher risk of problems in a certain area, even if somebody didn’t report it,” Fischler said. Having a mental health issue doesn’t necessarily make an applicant unfit to serve, unless it is thought to interfere with police work.

Next, there would be an interview with the psychologist that would get into education, employment, legal and disciplinary history, financial history, any problematic sexual behaviors, substance abuse issues, and other factors.

“A good predictor of future behavior is past behavior in similar circumstances. If someone has been in a life-threatening situation, or they’ve been in emergency situations, a fight or a conflict, things like that, you would try to understand how their history of behavior might predict what they would do in the future,” Fischler said.

Often, prospective officers are scored along several dimensions. These might include something like social competence, teamwork, adaptability/flexibility, conscientiousness/dependability, impulse control/attention to safety, integrity/ethics, emotional regulation/distress tolerance, decision-making/judgement, assertiveness/persuasiveness, and avoiding substance abuse and other risk-taking behavior, which happen to be the ten dimensions measured by the California Commission of Peace Officer Standards and Training.

Once this process is complete, psychologists make a recommendation to departments about whether or not the applicant is fit to serve. That recommendation isn’t binding. Rarely is an officer hired whose psychological screening suggests might not be a good fit for the job, Fischler said, but he’s seen it happen.

In Minneapolis, the psychological screening process has drawn some criticism from applicants and from the president of the police union, Lt. Bob Kroll.

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In January, the Star Tribune reported that some believe the psychological screening process is unfairly disqualifying applicants, including minority applicants who otherwise meet department requirements. The reasons for which officers were eliminated, they argue, aren’t always clear.

“It’s a big cloak of secrecy that they’re operating under, and there’s no transparency, which goes against the chief’s mission statement,” Kroll told the Star Tribune. Kroll was referring to former Police Chief Janeé Harteau, who resigned Friday.

It’s unclear whether anything about the psychological screening process has changed since January. Neither the Minneapolis Police Department nor Kroll responded to requests for comment for this story.


Getting a clean bill from a psychologist isn’t the end of the evaluation of police-officer candidates. Following that initial screening, new cops generally undergo about months of training in police academies.

Michael Quinn, a former Minneapolis Police officer who trained 350 police officers when he ran MPD’s police academy from 1994 to 1999, said he watched the behavior of prospective cops in the police academy closely to identify any behaviors that could become problems.

Some people, if you watch carefully enough, will show signs of racism, or signs that they might have issues with behavior under stress, Quinn said. For others, signs that policing might not be the right job don’t show up right away.

“I’ve had a number of cops that did really well in the academy, were smart people, good communicators, the whole works, but the moment they got on the street, they either had difficulty either realizing when they were facing a threat, which is a bad thing for a cop, or they had trouble multitasking,” Quinn said.

Ultimately, Quinn said, they tended to lose 15 to 20 percent of cops at the academy stage, because they realized it wasn’t the right job for them.

Police officers go through field training after the academy, where they are paired with an experienced cop, and are typically on probation — they can be let go without cause — for a year, said recently retired former Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell.

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The pairing of Noor, who had been on the police force since 2015, and Harrity, who had been an officer for about a year, has drawn some criticism from people who say two relatively inexperienced officers shouldn’t have been paired. But others say the practice is not uncommon. Among other training sessions, both officers had taken required implicit bias, weapons and procedural justice training, records released by the city Monday show.

Decisions about who to hire are some of the most important calls police chiefs make, Schnell said.

“We were looking for things around character … truthfulness, people who kind of had a long wick, so to speak, that were low-key, able to deal with their temperament and mindful of temperament, good decisionmaking, stability in their background,” Schnell said. Even at the largest departments, police chiefs are generally briefed on these things as departments make hires, he said.

It’s never possible to predict with complete certainty how someone you watch in training will respond to stressful scenarios in the real world, Quinn said.

“You never know how they’re going to act in a critical situation until they get into it themselves,” he said. “We can put them through all the training in the world, we can try to jack up their adrenaline, try and make them afraid, but it’s still just in training, and they know that.”

He added that departments could do a better job of monitoring and following up on how officers respond to incidents in the field, and predicted that for many officers involved in shootings, red flags would pop up in their training or work records.

An adequate process?

In the case of the shooting of Damond, there are still more questions than answers. Was the screening process for Noor adequate? Could more rigorous evaluation have prevented this tragedy?

When asked about his reaction to Damond’s shooting, Fischler said he’d want to know how the psychological evaluation was done, and whether it was up to standards.

“Because no psychological evaluation can be a perfect predictor, the evaluation could have been done perfectly correctly and within the bounds of what would be considered good practice, but something happens you wouldn’t have expected to happen because that’s the nature of it,” he said.