Tom Avril, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 16, 2015
Earlier this year, African American police officers’ groups contended that the Philadelphia Police Department’s psychological screening was eliminating a lot of black applicants.
Data recently provided by the department suggest that the critics are right.
From 2011 through 2014, 72.5 percent of the 262 black applicants passed the psych evaluation, compared with 81.2 percent of the 823 white candidates.
Hispanic applicants fell in between, at 75 percent of 176 job-seekers. Applicants of Asian descent fared the worst, at less than 58 percent, but their overall numbers were small–just 66 applicants over the four-year period.
Experts caution that the different passing rates are not necessarily evidence of discrimination. But as police departments nationwide grapple with improving their relations with minority communities, the black officers’ groups saw the lower passing rates as a clear cause for concern.
“We’re still not on even ground,” said David Fisher, president of the National Black Police Association’s greater Philadelphia chapter.
Asked about the different passing rates, police human resources director Heather McCaffrey said in an email that the department was in the process of improving its psych evaluation.
“The Police Department is constantly evaluating processes for improvement,” McCaffrey wrote. “We have hired a chief psychologist who is revamping the psychological testing program in accordance with best practices. As these changes are still ongoing, I cannot go into more detail at this time.”
The evaluations are performed by independent psychologists, whom the department declined to identify. In deciding whether a person is fit for duty, a psychologist weighs the candidate’s answers on a true-false test of more than 500 questions along with information gleaned from a one-hour interview with the candidate.
The true-false test is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, a widely used exam that is designed to tell if the test-taker exhibits any of a wide range of undesirable tendencies: antisocial behavior, rule-breaking, emotional instability, and difficulty in personal relationships, among others.
There is no evidence that the test is racially discriminatory, said Yossef Ben-Porath, a prominent expert on the test and a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University in Ohio.
However, people of low socioeconomic status may fare worse on certain aspects of the test, if raised in an environment where rule-breaking and challenging authority were commonplace, said David Corey, a Lake Oswego, Ore.-based psychologist who consults for law enforcement agencies across the United States and Canada.
Concern about the evaluation was first raised in a July article in the Philadelphia Daily News. At that time, the department said about 57 percent of its 6,300 members were white, 33 percent were black, 8 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian and other races. But since Mayor Nutter took office in 2008, blacks have accounted for 248 of 1,229 new hires as of July – just 20.2 percent of the total.
The department attributed the lower percentage of black hires in part to lower interest amid the national news about fatal encounters between police and minority civilians.