The Promise and Pitfalls of Selection for Public Safety Positions

  • Latino Officers Claim In Suit They Were Passed Over, Given Mall Duty (February 17, 2014, Adolfo Flores, LA Times (article regarding Westminster, CA)
  • Ex-Cops’ Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Anchorage Police Goes to Jury (March 26, 2014, Casey Grove, Anchorage Daily News)
  • Sheriff’s Department Hired Officers with Histories of Misconduct (December 1, 2013, Robert Faturechi, LA Times, article describing the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department)

Large or small, city or village, county or state, public sector jurisdictions all face the problems inherent in public safety entry level selection and promotion. As the headlines above demonstrate, police and fire selection is high stakes and attracts a great deal of attention from media and citizens, not to mention the interest of unions, attorneys, and federal regulatory agencies. The paradox of public safety selection is that many jurisdictions spend more money on police and fire assessment, and in many cases engage in state-of-the-art techniques, and yet it is in this area that public sector organizations experience the most criticism, complaints, and costly lawsuits. Thus, regardless of the size and type of organization, public safety selection is difficult, time and money intensive, high stakes, and contentious.

In this, my first blog for IPMA-HR’s Assessment Services Review, I am going to summarize some of the conclusions from our recent book chapter on fire and police assessment and selection (for the full article see Barrett, G. V., Doverspike, D., & Young, C, 2010, The special case of public sector police and fire selection. In J. C. Scott & D, Reynolds, Handbook of Workplace Assessment: Evidence-Based Practices for Selecting and Developing Organizational Talent, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 437-462). In doing so, I will incorporate discussions of recent trends and developments in public safety selection. Although there are many fine consultants who offer services in the area of police and fire selection, I will illustrate a number of my points by referring to assessments offered by IPMA-HR.

Basic Parameters of Public Safety Selection

When discussing public safety assessment, we can divide topics in a 2X2 matrix. The major dimensions would be the type of job or profession, police or fire, and then whether the selection is for entry level or promotional. Fire positions may or may not include an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) component, and we are already seeing a trend toward breaking EMS out as a separate function.

A frequent difference between larger and smaller jurisdictions is in the emphasis on previous training and experience. Smaller cities often require that candidates already have some type of police or fire certification, especially EMS certification for fire. Larger cities may limit their minimum qualifications to a simple requirement of a high school degree.

Regardless of size, many jurisdictions utilize external consultants or testing companies in the process of creating a selection battery. As will be discussed below, the process of testing has embraced new technologies, although for practical reasons many public organizations still use various types of paper-and-pencil, multiple choice tests.

One area in which technology has had an obvious influence is in the creation of recruitment websites, which often given in-depth information on the testing process. A simple google search will lead to the identification of a number of interesting recruitment websites. For those interested in assessment, the San Diego website features extensive discussion of the various components in the selection battery. My colleagues at the City of Columbus also have a very well-constructed site and also utilize a YouTube video to offer an overview of the physical test.

A written test or battery constitutes only one part of the screening process. Other components for entry level positions include a physical ability test, background investigation, psychological evaluation, and medical examination. For promotional tests, the administration or civil service commission must decide whether the test will be limited to internals, or whether external candidates will be permitted; of course, in some cases the testing process may be eliminated by simply promoting the most senior person.

Entry Level Hiring For Police and Fire: Traditional Methods

As previously noted, despite some recent modifications based on new technologies, many jurisdictions still use entry level assessments that test traditional cognitive abilities in a paper-and-pencil format. Although these tests can be easily computerized, police and fire positions attract large numbers of applicants resulting in a demand for large numbers of computers and dedicated computer facilities. Typically, the abilities tested include reading, math, mechanical comprehension (for fire), and short-term memory.

Almost all jurisdictions test for physical ability. A variety of different types of assessment are used including tests of aerobic capacity, physical fitness, and physical agility. In my opinion, for both entry level fire and police, job related physical ability tests represent the most defensible option.

Most agencies administer a version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a clinical personality psychological test given post offer as part of an overall psychological evaluation. Given the nature of the job, drug testing is also common. Finally, as an additional test of psychological fitness, reference and background checks are used, although their reliability and validity may be low.

Entry Level Hiring For Police and Fire: Newer Trends

Unlike the private sector, change in the public sector often occurs more slowly. Thus, many jurisdictions stick to the tried-and-true traditional methods. In this section I will discuss some newer trends in entry level selection. Now, I can already hear the grumbling that some of my newer trends have been around for 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 or more years. However, as I said, change sometimes comes slow.

Although controversial in the public sector, one sees more and more movement toward the use of non-cognitive, personality or interest questionnaires. Many companies offer such instruments including IPMA-HR.

Two variations on the personality test deserve discussion. Integrity tests involve items regarding attitudes toward various forms of dishonesty, as well as questions assessing potential illegal activities. A newer type of personality instrument assesses emotional intelligence. Police officers in particular would seem to require emotional intelligence.

Another innovation is the use of material studied prior to the exam, either in the weeks before the exam, or right before the exam during the test administration session. For example, IPMA-HR offers tests based on a test information packet. The rationale behind such a test is that it can be designed to assess a candidates’ ability to read, learn and apply information similar to what will be required on the job.

Situational judgment tests present the candidate with a brief scenario and then ask the candidate to select the best choice, what they would do in the situation, or perhaps what should not be done in the situation. A variety of methods for scoring situational judgment tests exist. In part, there increased popularity can be traced to the ability to administer the situational judgment test in a number of formats including paper-and-pencil format, computer administration, video, or even interview.

Many jurisdictions have moved to the use of video-based tests. Although a video-based test can be used to assess a variety of abilities, such as a source for report writing or an oral presentation, this medium is often combined with the situational judgment test. The use of such tests does require the agency to be prepared to deal with a variety of audio visual challenges.

Interviews, especially panel interviews, have long been used in public safety selection. However, there has now been a movement away from the older high stress or somewhat random off the cuff format to the use of structured interviews. In a structured interview, all candidates are asked the same series of questions and scoring rubrics are offered ahead of time. This does take time and you should be ready to devote an hour or more to administering and scoring the interview.

The use of past life history data, or biodata, in assessing candidates has been around for quite some time. The basic theory behind biodata is that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. With a biodata instrument, the candidate is asked a series of questions on topics such as economic stability, work ethic orientation, and educational achievement. Applicants’ scores are determined based on complicated statistical or empirical relationships.

Promotional Testing For Police and Fire: Traditional Methods

Tests are often used to make promotion decisions within both the police and fire service. However, as noted earlier, a jurisdiction may decide to promote based on seniority and/or evaluations of performance. In addition, some agencies may decide to open the promotional process to outsiders or external candidates. As might be expected, this can lead to dissatisfaction among current firefighters or officers. The typical minimum requirement is a certain number of years of acceptable performance, often two to five years, in a lower level job.

Traditionally, assessment for promotions have included a job knowledge test based on a source list distributed to the candidates several months before the test administration data. This allows candidates to study and prepare for the exam. Such job knowledge tests can be developed internally, by the human resource staff for a city, or purchased from testing firms. IPMA-HR offers both stock and custom made job knowledge tests for various promotional levels.

Following the job knowledge test, candidates often move on to an interview or oral boards, where oral responses are given to questions presented by a panel of interviewers. As with entry level candidates, the oral board can make use of a structured interview format. The scoring procedure for oral interview boards can be subjective and lead to various security concerns. One solution is the use of video or voice recording of the interview or oral board followed by evaluation at a later date by an independent panel of trained raters

Smaller cities often use individual assessments in the promotional process. Individual assessments involve one-on-one assessments usually by a psychologist. A narrative report is then provided to the city by the psychologist. Today, individual assessments are often completed online.

Promotional Testing: New Concepts and Trends

For promotional testing, the use of an assessment center is common; thus, placing it in the new trends section seems illogical. However, the assessment center is still often offered as an alternative to traditional methods.

The assessment center can be thought of as a medium for testing and a variety of tests can be offered within the assessment center. Classically, for the assessment center, the candidate completes multiple assessments including simulations and role plays in a structured, standardized environment, where they are observed and evaluated by multiple raters. Assessment centers are not cheap and require a great deal of administrative time; however, they are often viewed favorably by candidates and other stakeholders. Thus, a resulting newer trend has been the modifying and trimming of assessment centers by simply giving one or two exercises, such as an in-basket, or by administering a realistic job simulation on the computer.

In recent years, many authorities have suggested that in promotional testing, insufficient attention is paid to the construct of command presence.   Although a somewhat nebulous concept, it can be thought of as demonstrated through action; for example, by coming onto the scene of a crisis and showing that you are competent, secure, and in charge. It can also be thought of as similar to a military presence. The problem with this concept is in how to measure or evaluate command presence; although an obvious opportunity would be offered by an interview of some type.


  • 9 Air Force Commanders Fired From Jobs Over Nuclear Missile Test Cheating, Greg Botelho, CNN, March 27, 2014,

One could fill multiple blogs and books with war stories regarding claims of cheating, improper assistance to candidates, leaked exams, and scoring irregularities; the Test Security and Cheating series authored by my predecessor, Robert Burd, provided a number of such stories as well as suggestions for dealing with security issues. No doubt most readers of this blog have their favorite stories.

A major concern for jurisdictions of all sizes is the security and confidentiality of the process. The human resource department can plan on spending a good amount of time dealing with security issues and complaints about cheating. Given the high stakes, as soon as human resources develops new methods of dealing with security, candidates create innovative approaches to beating the test. A simple suggestion is to google for any electronic information publicly available on approaches to manipulating your test results. In his February blog, Robert Burd discussed how using multiple forms of written exams discourage copying. The human element is always important and there is no substitute for well-trained, highly vigilant proctors.

Final Thoughts, Basic Reading and Resources

As this blog suggests, working in the area of police and fire selection can be an exciting challenge. Certainly, it involves highly visible and important work where the human resource professional can make a real difference.

The attentive reader has no doubt noticed my intentional avoidance of the topic of adverse impact. The omission was intentional; the topic of adverse impact is a complicated one, especially given the small sizes and unique nature of candidate pools. For now, I have left a discussion of this complex topic for a future blog.

Beyond the information offered so far, all I can say is good luck and learn from experience. For those interested in more practical suggestions, there are certain basic professional guidelines and resources. The competent selection professional should be well-versed in the following:

If you are new to the field, you may want to consider conferences and special workshops devoted to public safety assessment offered by organizations such as IPMA-HR or the International Personnel Assessment Council.

In closing, I welcome your comments, questions or criticisms below.

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About Dennis Doverspike

Dennis Doverspike, Ph.D., ABPP, is President of Doverspike Consulting LLC. He is certified as a specialist in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and in Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), serves on the Board of the American Board of Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology, and is a licensed psychologist in the State of Ohio. Dr. Doverspike has over forty years of experience working with consulting firms and with public and private sector organizations. He is the author of 3 books and over 150 other professional publications. Dennis Doverspike received his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1983 from the University of Akron.

One thought on “The Promise and Pitfalls of Selection for Public Safety Positions

  1. Great article, Dr. Doverspike — a comprehensive overview of the public safety assessment field, which is the most complex and by far the most highly litigated area in all of HR assessment. I look forward to your future articles.

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