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Experts cast doubt on psychological evaluations for Md. police

Bryan P. Sears//November 24, 2015

Experts cast doubt on psychological evaluations for Md. police

By Bryan P. Sears

//November 24, 2015

Improved supervision and training may improve policing more than mandatory psychological evaluations of officers, according to two experts.

The testimony before the Public Safety and Policing Workgroup cast some doubt on efforts to require additional mandatory psychological testing of police officers. Some members of the panel said there is no consensus on what such a recommendation would look like.

“This is all about the failure to supervise at all levels,” said Stephen F. Curran, a psychologist with a specialty background in police and public safety, in discussing shortcomings in police performance. “It’s the failure to take disciplinary action — to hold people accountable. That’s the push.”

Curran was one of two experts to testify Tuesday at Morgan State University before the work group. The legislative panel is expected to meet one more time in early December before making recommendations on as many as six bills focused on changing policing in the state.

There are about 70 psychologists certified in the specialty of police and public safety, according to Curran, who said he is the only one with such credentials in the state.

Hamin Shabazz, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Stevenson University and a former police officer in Camden, New Jersey, said most police departments already test recruits, though there is no consistency in terms of which test is used.

“I would say to you that the problems that law enforcement is experiencing in the state of Maryland as well as the United States is based on training,” said Shabazz. “That is where I think the solutions will be.”

Many agencies also have periodic exams to test fitness for duty. As legislators consider the possibility of requiring mandatory psychological evaluations, some have raised the question of costs, which are estimated to be between $3 million to $5 million annually statewide.

“My position on retesting is that I think it would be a waste of resources,” Shabazz said. “The average cost of an exam is about $300 (per officer).”

The work group is one of three taking up police and criminal justice issues before the General Assembly convenes in January. Other panels are looking at body cameras or at how to lower the rates of incarceration and recidivism in Maryland.

The panel was created earlier this year by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. in the aftermath of the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a west Baltimore man who suffered fatal injuries while in police custody.

Since its first meeting in June, the group has looked at issues including hiring practices, diversity within police departments and additional, mandatory periodic psychological evaluations of police officers.

Still, some members of the panel say testing can play an important role in determining if an officer can adequately perform his or her duties.

“Inadequate testing is what we’ve also got,” said Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City, referring to part of Shabazz’s testimony. “There’s an inconsistency across the board, and regulations need to be changed. We don’t really have professionals who are doing this testing, that’s my understanding. With 17,000 police officers we certainly can’t have one person providing psychological testing.”

Del. Brett R. Wilson, R-Washington County, said there is no consensus on the panel to require testing and said any such recommendation would have to contain specific guidance on what circumstances would trigger an evaluation.

“There’s a clear difference regarding when it should be administered and how it should be triggered,” said Wilson, who is also an assistant state’s attorney in his home county. “We’ve heard talk that after any traumatic event, from an accident where a child dies all the way up to instance where there is an excessive force brutality case, there’s no consensus right now. There’s a gut feeling that testing of a person that could indicate a problem could prevent a bigger problem. I don’t know if we got a clear answer on that specific issue from the experts.”


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