Unlike in the private sector, candidates for promotion or special assignment in police agencies, especially in smaller departments, may get only a couple of opportunities over their entire career. Police officers seeking a detective position want the selection process to be fair, open and representative of the position’s requirement in their city or town. Officers don’t like canned or generic tests, and, suspicious by nature, they want the test results relatively quickly.
The inadequacies of paper-and-pencil type tests and a snapshot of the candidate in a 25-minute oral board has never seemed to me the best method of selecting the most qualified candidates for a “doing” profession. Some police officers possess book knowledge, are good written-test takers and can wow an oral panel with theory, but lack the ability in real-life situations to do the job. All of us have experienced police personnel in ranking positions who perform extremely well on paper tests but can’t lead a group of people down the hall.
In addition to teaching and writing, I run a company that creates and administers police examinations from entry level to chief of police. As a retired police captain, I once took the type of promotional examinations I now create. A major component of my company’s testing is the use of an assessment center to predict how well candidates will perform in on-the-job situations.
An assessment center provides a testing process in which candidates for promotion participate in a series of simulations that resemble what personnel must do in the real world. In an assessment center, trained assessors observe and grade candidates performing tests that simulate conditions and situations encountered on the job.
To create an assessment-center promotional-exam for the position of police detective, we begin by using a job-task analysis to identify the knowledge, skills, abilities and personal traits (KSAPs) critical for success in the detective position. Simply put, a job-task analysis is a systematic methodology of defining tasks and/or behaviors needed to perform a job successfully over a period of time. The job-task analysis provides information with which we construct the KSAPs, and should be the engine that drives the entire selection process. Other than ensuring the testing process is job-related and valid, it tells us specifically what to test for and guides us in building the simulated scenarios conducted in the assessment center.
In a typical assessment-center test for a detective, we create a package-store (liquor store) robbery scene using trained role players. The candidate responds to an actual package store and finds a uniformed officer protecting the scene. The package-store owner has been shot to death. The candidate encounters a variety of forensic evidence in the store and several witnesses. The candidate must handle the entire investigation within a specific time frame while assessors observe. Upon completion of the exercise, the candidate makes a presentation of investigative findings to the assessors, who ask a series of predetermined questions.
It’s an exhausting process for candidates because they might go through four or five of these real-life exercises during the day. This simulation component, coupled with traditional written and oral testing (usually administered separately) provides a comprehensive indication of who among the candidates is most likely to be able to do the job successfully over time.
Although no test can absolutely identify the intrinsic traits exemplary detectives possess, the assessment-center process will help you determine whether candidates exhibit the following essential qualities:
Excellent Work Ethic
Detectives work long hours and can’t be clock watchers. Past performance is the best predictor of future competence. Has the candidate consistently demonstrated a commitment to the life we have chosen as police officers? Does the candidate arrive early and stay late to get the job done without thought of compensation? Does the candidate take pride in their work by striving for excellence in everything they do?
Loyalty to the Profession
Policing is a way of life, not a job or career. Is the candidate proud to be a police officer and of the department? Does the candidate understand how to use power to make a significant difference in other people’s lives? Is the candidate trustworthy and able to work with minimum supervision? Can the candidate withstand the ethical dilemmas associated with this unique type of work?
Does the candidate have un-common, not common sense? By this I mean is the candidate a student of human behavior? Is the candidate street smart? Has the candidate gained job-related insight into the dark underworld of the claw and fang? Does the candidate understand how motive drives the psyche and fuels the fire of the predators among us?
Does the candidate understand our craft? Are they an expert in the practical (not academic) legal application of the laws of arrest and search and seizure? Does the candidate have excellent written and verbal communications skills? Can the candidate communicate with people from all walks of life?
Ability to Follow Leadership
No one wants a constant complainer working for them. Thoughtful input is crucial, but policing is not a democracy. After the boss makes a decision, does the candidate get firmly behind it and get the job done?
People who have the traits listed above are rare, and thus, extremely valuable to the organization. Sergeants and command staff should evaluate the intrinsic qualities of the most qualified candidates and recommend the chief select those who have demonstrated these traits that separate them from the rest of the pack.
Active Recruitment & the Rule of Three
Many police departments continue to use some type of civil-service testing to select candidates for detective, but others rely on a structured interview process. In those departments that consider investigative positions assignments rather than promotions, the police chief, often with input from staff, chooses who will serve in an investigative position.
I’ve never been an advocate of anything other than civil-service type testing and don’t agree with the school of thought that the detective rank should be an assignment rather than a promotion. People I respect disagree with me. They argue in favor of providing the chief with a non civil-service opportunity to place personnel in a higher pay grade with the title of detective and a gold badge under the guise of meeting the department’s affirmative-action goals.
I do agree with the philosophy that the department should reflect the racial and gender makeup of the community we serve. However, rather than meeting these goals through special assignment, I believe active minority and gender recruitment is the key, not a selection process often closed to scrutiny by department members. Active recruitment, along with the “rule of three,” provides the chief the opportunity to select any one of the top-three qualified candidates on a certified list.
How does this work? For each certified position, the chief can pass over candidates who finished first and second and promote the third-best candidate. For a second promotion, the fourth-best candidate moves up a notch, giving the chief another list of three to choose from, allowing the chief to bypass candidates one and two again, and so on. I have no problem with balancing a department’s affirmative-action goals in this manner as long as the candidates have passed a fair, valid and reliable promotional process.
Follow-up to “Investigating Firearms,” June 2007
An author never knows when an article will strike a chord with readers. My column on basic guidelines for investigating firearms resulted in not only requests for reprints, but also comments from several experts who pointed out important updates I should have included.
Agent John Roberts, a forensic scientist with the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Trace Evidence Department, correctly points out that most law enforcement agencies have moved away from Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA), and labs now use a chemical color test to test for powder residue ejected from the weapon. Roberts also notes that in conducting gunshot residue (GSR) analysis on the primer residue from the weapon, forensic analysts using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), are “not looking for the amounts of metal present on the samples, but the particles of gunshot residue themselves. They look for round particles that contain mostly lead, since it is the most prevalent component in the primer. They also look for particles containing all three metals [lead, barium and antimony] in a spherical shape.”
Several readers noted plastic bags should not be used to place around the hands of a victim or suspected shooter because moisture will collect on the inside of the bags, removing or causing damage to the evidence. Paper bags are a much better choice.
Many thanks to our readers for pointing out these facts.