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Want to stop police abuse? Screen out the abusers, experts say.

Policing may attract applicants with propensities for violence

Of the many questions raised after the release of the shocking video of Nichols’ beating, a big one remained: How could people who would do something like this become police officers?

Those hiring might not catch everyone with a violent predisposition, even with the best screenings — but many police departments now aren’t doing enough, experts say.

Keeping abusers out

One of the best ways to prevent police brutality and abuse — according to a series of reports and reviews produced by national commissions spanning the past five decades — is to put better controls around who gets to carry a badge and a gun. Most states, including Tennessee, fail to follow best practices in screening police candidates, experts told Grid.

Four of the five Memphis officers charged in Nichols’ death had previously faced reprimands or suspensions, including for violations relating to use of force.

Tennessee requires police agencies to submit applicants to a degree of psychological evaluation but fails to require other measures – including a written questionnaire or interviews by trained psychologists – which could help detect troubling traits in recruits.

“There are 13 states that still don’t mandate ... psychological screening of any sort,” said Karen Amendola, chief behavioral scientist at the National Policing Institute. “And in the 37 that have it, most of them do not follow best practice standards for what type of training the psychologist has, and what type of tools they use to do their assessment.”

“Too obvious to require detailed discussion”

The need to better screen policing applicants for violent tendencies and other dangerous propensities has long been recognized. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice —also known as the Katzenbach Commission — released its 1967 final report noting that officer candidates should be assessed for their emotional stability.

Shortly afterward, another presidential commission under the Nixon Administration — the National Advisory Commission on Annual Justice Standards and Goals — recommended that by 1975 every law enforcement agency have a trained professional administer standard psychological tests “or other means of evaluating the characteristics of applicants which may be detrimental to police work.”

Decades later, following protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama created yet another presidential policing task force.

Today, only four states — California, Maine, South Carolina and Washington — require psychological screening both to screen out candidates for law enforcement jobs and to screen in candidates.

The death of Nichols has renewed conversations about how police candidates should be selected.

California standard

Local officials and policymakers have argued that more stringent screening can be one of the most effective ways to reduce police abuse.

Myrick, the former Ithaca mayor, said that implementing enhanced psychological screening weeded out 75 percent of candidates to his city’s police force and that most police abuse complaints came from officers hired before the screening improvements.

“What I would say is that of the 37 states, very few of them actually adhere to best practice standards,” she said. “And my guess is because they don’t really know what they are.”

“[T]he broad disparity among statewide mandates, and the absence of any standards in 13 states, is a serious impediment to nationwide efforts to effectively screen out candidates who lack the psychological attributes necessary to safely and effectively perform the duties of a police officer,” the paper notes.

“We want to make sure that when you’re hired that you have had a psychological evaluation and that you’re suited for this job,” Tennessee State Rep. G.A. Hardaway said, “and the job is suited to you.”

The Memphis Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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