Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Predicting Police Officer Misconduct Using the MMPI-2

Officer Derrick Saunders' mug shot
On the night of June 17, 2010, a Colorado State Patrol Officer was parked on the side of the road. He was looking for speeders, and it was a slow night. But, seemingly out of nowhere, a car blew past him so fast he almost missed it. The officer quickly jumped into action and chased down the car, eventually getting the driver to stop. What he found surprised him.

The officer clocked the car at 143 miles per hour (driving in a 55 mph zone), and the driver was Derrick Curtis Saunders, a Denver police officer. He had a passenger in the car with him, and he was drunk. He ended up pleading guilty to driving while impaired and reckless driving. Mr. Saunders was later reported to have said he merely wanted to test how fast the car would go.

In December of 2011, a mere 18 months after his arrest, Officer Saunders was fired from his job with the Denver Police Department. He appealed the decision, citing it was "disproportionate to the offenses alleged." Within the past week, he was reinstated with the Denver Police Department, and he is back at work.

It takes a special kind of person to be a police officer. In my opinion, being a good cop is one of the hardest jobs in the world. It requires an extensive knowledge of state laws, the US Constitution, police procedures, self-defense, aggressiveness, compassion, and calmness. I truly believe the vast majority of police officers are of the highest caliber, and I am impressed with their performance.

Unfortunately, there are always going to be a few bad cops who ruin it for all the good ones. And the bad ones have the power to do some extraordinarily bad things. The problem is, how do you pick out the bad cops from the good cops before they endanger anyone's life?

It turns out, there is an excellent way to do just this--all police departments put their job applicants through a rigorous pre-employment screening procedure, which includes a psychological assessment. In the last 50 years, there has been a tremendous amount of research into the characteristics of pre-employment screening assessment results and how to use those results to predict bad outcomes.

By far, the most widely used assessment instrument in these psychological evaluations is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Second Edition (MMPI-2). It was originally developed to detect mental illness, but its use has expanded into many different areas.

The MMPI-2 has a number of "validity scales," or scales that determine whether the person is lying on the test. It also has many clinical and supplemental scales that measure different aspects of a person's personality and emotional make-up.

What research has shown is that officers who lie on the MMPI-2 and score highly on a scale measuring antisocial tendencies usually end up getting into trouble in their careers. Paranoia and mood instability are also good predictors of future misconduct. High anxiety and overcontrolled hostility are also predictors of future misconduct. When the personality traits of antisocial tendencies, paranoia, and overly controlled hostility are combined, it is a recipe for disaster.

I do not know what Mr. Saunders' pre-employment MMPI-2 scores were, but he obviously passed the pre-employment screening conducted by the Denver Police Department (otherwise, he never would have been employed by the DPD). Do you have any guesses about his antisocial, paranoia, mood instability, lying, anxiety, and overcontrolled hostility scores?

One other fact about Mr. Saunders--in 2009, he was arrested for allegedly pulling a gun on a McDonald's employee because he was taking too long to get his food to the officer. Mr. Saunders was eventually cleared of those charges.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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