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Md. lawmakers debate use of polygraphs in state hiring

Bryan P. Sears//December 17, 2019

Md. lawmakers debate use of polygraphs in state hiring

By Bryan P. Sears

//December 17, 2019

Sen. Clarence K. Lam speaks March 14, 2019 in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)
Sen. Clarence Lam speaks March 14, 2019 in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — A legislative committee that oversees state personnel policy is questioning the efficacy of polygraph exams in state hiring.

Sen. Clarence Lam, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight, said there is mounting evidence to suggest such tests may not be effective. Additionally, the tests could be open to bias that could prevent some from obtaining jobs.

“There have been some broader questions … there’s conflicting evidence in the science of polygraphs and how reliable they are,” said Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, noting that  the tests could have some serious limitations. “The reason is that polygraphs introduce the potential for bias. It is a human being assessing — the polygrapher is a human being — it’s possible that they may have their own biases they carry forward as well or biased by other information they may receive.”

Current state law prohibits most employers from requiring an applicant to submit to a polygraph exam. Exceptions are granted for state and local law enforcement officers, correctional officers and civilian employees of those agencies.

Lam cited one complaint from an anonymous person who applied for a civilian job with the Maryland State Police. That applicant underwent two polygraph tests that were inconclusive and ultimately turned down a request for a third exam. The applicant did not get the job and was later rejected for a second civilian job at the same department.

The applicant complained to lawmakers after receiving documents under the Maryland Public Information Act, including text messages Lam characterized as a discussion between two polygraph examiners in which the applicant was discussed including responses to questions about sexual abuse and the applicant’s Middle Eastern ethnicity.

Lt. Colonel Dalaine Brady, chief of the state police support services bureau, said polygraph exams typically focus on drugs and crime.

“We believe that it does assist in our responsibility to find an applicant with good moral character, reputation, and whether or not they display the necessary behaviors to be a police officer,” she said.

“There has never been a reason where a polygraph was the sole reason an applicant was not hired,” she said.

Brady said there is little internal evidence to suggest the tests disproportionately affect applicants by gender or race. She said failure rates are nearly identical in those classes.

Brady said the text messages in question were likely between a polygraph examiner and a supervisor. She said “it was very unfortunate, some of the back and forth that they used, it appeared to me that they were suggesting that the person was not being deceptive but that the particular line of questioning, which is sex offenses, was causing a reaction and it certainly could have been that they were uncomfortable. Normally sex crimes causes a lot of anxiety.”

Brady said examiners typically try to root out the cause of the anxiety in a post-exam interview.

“What we do find, a lot, is that they are victims of sexual abuse or that they have witnessed sexual abuse,” said Brady.

Last year the Senate considered legislation that would have loosened a 2015 law that requires applicants for correctional officer positions to pass a polygraph test as part of a larger application process that includes a background check.

That requirement was implemented in response to a number of federal investigations that netted corrections officers in corruption cases.

Under the bill proposed earlier this year by Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, R-Eastern Shore, the department could forgo a polygraph exam in lieu of an in-depth background check.

Carozza, whose district includes the Eastern Correctional Institute, cited severe staff shortages brought on by normal retirement and attrition but also a federal investigation in which 80 people, including 18 corrections officers, were charged with federal racketeering, bribery and smuggling.

Carozza said earlier this year that the change could help address those officer shortages in her district and in state prisons around Maryland where the job vacancy rates are around 20 percent. Ultimately, the bill was sent back to committee and died.

Robert Green, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, agreed with Brady, calling the tests “one of many tools” used in judging applicants.

Most failures, he said, center on drug use.

“We are in a tough, complex business. We give an individual ultimate authority over another human being. We want to make the right choice,” he said.

Del. Michael Jackson, a Prince George’s County Democrat who served eight years as sheriff in his home county, stressed caution in proposing legislation that could limit the use of polygraph exams.

“I am an avid proponent of the utilization of as many tools as possible before you hire an individual into a public safety position,” said Jackson. “I would say, from personal experience, and I still work in a public safety arena, we need to be very careful traversing such an option. Everything can be refined and scrutinized, as it should be, but I’d just like to register that the more tools we have in the tool shed to ensure public safety officials at all levels are trustworthy and that they are upholding the ethical and moral standards of the profession.”





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