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Psychologist Assesses Reasons for Seeking Job : Police Candidates Find Motives on Trial

Times Staff Writers

Susan Saxe-Clifford knows there are a lot of people who want to be police officers for the wrong reasons. It’s her job to ferret them out before they are hired, trained and assigned a neighborhood beat and a revolver.

A psychologist for more than three dozen police agencies in Southern California, including the Burbank Police Department, Los Angeles Unified School District’s campus police and RTD, Saxe-Clifford conducts at least 50 evaluations a month to determine whether potential recruits are too power-hungry--or too meek--for police work.

“I hear everything,” she said. “Whether they’ve been physically abused. Whether they come from a family with drugs or divorce. I have to see whether the person has worked through these kinds of problems, thought about them and is stable.”

After 16 years of experience testing police applicants, Saxe-Clifford rattles off a litany of what she considers apocryphal motives for wanting to become an officer.

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“I’ve always wanted to be in a shoot-out,” she said one man answered.

‘Straighten Out My Life’

She said another, older candidate told her: “I’ve never been able to hold onto a job; I’m going into police work to see if it will help me straighten out my life.”

Thrill seekers don’t make it past Saxe-Clifford, she said. Neither do the ones claiming they intend to discipline their lives with a career in law enforcement.

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And if you don’t make it past Susan Saxe-Clifford, you’re out of luck.

“I provide a professional outside opinion that helps assure only the best applicants become officers,” said Saxe-Clifford, 39, of Encino. Of those who are screened out, she said, “It would be very unpleasant to have them out in our community, armed.”

In order to determine whether an individual has what it takes, she said she first explores what compels candidates to seek a police career. This path often leads to other revelations which help her reach a conclusion about a recruit.

Although she maintains she does not hold official veto power over who becomes a recruit and who doesn’t, she said that none of the agencies employing her services has ever rejected her recommendation. Local police chiefs confirm that observation.

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Saxe-Clifford said about 20% of the potential recruits who see her “are wrong for police work.” This rejection rate, she said, is low compared to that of other police psychologists in Southern California, who often turn away 60% of the applicants.

“The process I’m involved in should be to screen out those inappropriate, not to choose the best ones,” she said. “The state of the art is not advanced enough to make such specific judgments. If there’s a subjective part of the process, it should be done, not by the psychologist, but by the police oral board.”

Saxe-Clifford began her forensic psychology career with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1970. She set up her own practice, based in Sherman Oaks, in 1978 after receiving her doctorate from the University of Southern California.

In addition to evaluating recruits, Saxe-Clifford often tests veteran officers who show signs of stress, which may be detected, for instance, by the number of complaints filed by citizens accusing them of using excessive force.

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Sees Other Applicants

She also sees applicants for dispatching and communication positions, jobs that the public may not regard as stressful but that she says put employees in a “highly critical and demanding spot.”

“They’re the lifeline of the community,” she said. “They’re the ones who take incoming calls, calm the caller and assess the problem.”

Psychological testing is relatively new to many police agencies; the practice proliferated during the late 1970s. Some, Saxe-Clifford said, resisted until a state law made it mandatory in 1984.

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Certain agencies “may not have trusted outside consultants and didn’t know whether they would add to the system. Psychologists may have been seen as an intrusion because departments might lose candidates they’ve carefully recruited,” she said.

Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates said his department uses psychologists only because it is required to do so by law, and said he thinks they miss as many problem recruits as they identify.

“If it was a true science, we wouldn’t end up with any problems after they pass them, but that’s not the case,” Gates said. “I’d rather see hands-on experience and judge a person’s response to certain events.”

The psychological interview is only one of a number of tools used to evaluate recruits during the screening process. Others usually include a background investigation, a written scholastic test, a polygraph test, extensive interviews with police authorities and a medical examination.

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Saxe-Clifford said most police agencies have been “open to testing for some time.”

One of those that has been is the Burbank Police Department.

“She’s more qualified than anyone in this city to determine whether someone has a bad temperament,” said Burbank Police Chief Glen Bell.

“Emotional maturity is what we’re looking for,” Saxe-Clifford said. “You are giving somebody not only the right to shoot somebody, but the responsibility that they must, in certain situations.”

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Other officials praised Saxe-Clifford and other police psychologists for saving tax dollars by sifting out applicants who would probably drop out before completing an expensive, multiweek training program.

Preliminary Written Test

All applicants also take a written psychological test before an hourlong conversation with Saxe-Clifford. She said she never rejects an applicant based solely on a written test, because often there are sound explanations to answers that initially may appear eccentric.

For example, one applicant’s written examination indicated that he suffered from paranoia. It turned out he was a prison guard, and an answer that “people I deal with often talk about me behind my back” suddenly seemed normal.

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In addition to determining the applicants’ motivation for becoming officers, Saxe-Clifford tries to uncover other clues that suggest unsuitable traits for a police officer.

Applicants she recommends against hiring often are also either too aggressive or too mild-mannered, she said.

“You look at how they’ve lived their life to that point,” she said. “You look at their responses to some hypothetical questions. Have they been in a recent fight? Could it have been avoided, and did they precipitate it?”

She cited two other qualities which are sometimes difficult to find in the same person:

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“A police officer is an executive who must make high-level decisions which will stand. But the officer also works in a semi-militaristic organization with a chain of command. So the officer must have the unique ability to function totally independently at times but also follow orders. Those are two opposite qualities.”

Ability to Communicate

She also looks for people with an ability to communicate and a healthy self-esteem.

Those who can’t articulate their thoughts are more likely to express themselves forcefully, she said. People possessing low self-esteem, she added, may want the badge to make them feel powerful.

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“If they are looking for this badge to give them self-esteem, there’s going to be big trouble,” she said. “They might come across as overly macho or abuse their authority. They might not be flexible.”

Police agencies seek to avoid recruits with either financial, serious family or sexual problems, Saxe-Clifford said.

She said she is also leery of applicants who reveal racial prejudices, or prejudices against women or homosexuals.

“We all have some prejudices; the question is, will the prejudice interfere with the way they treat people on the job?” she said.

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Many Reveal Prejudices

Many interviewees reveal strong prejudices to her without even knowing it, she said, because “they think everyone thinks that way.”

“Some think everyone hates Mexicans, or that everyone knows women should stick to scrubbing floors,” she said. “They reveal themselves in subtle ways, but it certainly affects their chances for a good recommendation.”

In Saxe-Clifford’s experience, no patterns have developed to show that any sex or age group is better suited to produce good police officers than any other one, she said.

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“When you need so many peace officers, you really do want to bring them in from all kinds of walks of life and give them an opportunity they may not have been aware of,” she said. “They may not be aware of what is required, but if they don’t apply, they won’t know they may be just the one a police agency is looking for.”


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