Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Entry-Level Police Officers: Extravagance or Justified Expense?

By Coulton, Gary F.; Feild, Hubert S. | Public Personnel Management, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview
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Using Assessment Centers in Selecting Entry-Level Police Officers: Extravagance or Justified Expense?


Coulton, Gary F., Feild, Hubert S., Public Personnel Management


The identification and subsequent use of effective selection measures is beneficial to any type of organization. However, the selection function in law enforcement agencies is particularly important for several reasons. Police officers are provided with a great deal more power than are citizens. Since officers typically spend much of their duty time alone, exercise of their power often requires use of considerable discretion on the part of the individual officer.(1) In addition, in executing their duties, officers are placed in stressful and potentially dangerous situations. When in such circumstances, there is a risk that the officer may act impulsively or in an otherwise inappropriate manner.(2) Such actions can easily result in the exposure of the individual, as well as other officers and citizens, to life threatening situations.

Because a patrol officers' actions can be so critical in terms of citizen safety the civil liability risk of police agencies is very high, and lawsuits are common.(3) In order to decrease the liability risks of their departments, police officers must have appropriate training and be competent to handle a variety of situations.(4) However, the extent and appropriateness of training is moot unless people who are capable of succeeding on the job are hired.

Police misconduct is extremely costly, not only with regard to monetary judgments against the agency, but also in terms of investigative costs, manpower costs (i.e., staff shortages due to suspensions, dismissals, and temporary reassignments), and morale.(5) Lynch has stated that one of the most effective ways for administrators to reduce liability is to make every effort "to staff the police department with the best possible people."(6)

There is yet another, somewhat unique, reason why selection of the best candidates for entry-level police positions is very important. Since lateral entry is rare, applicants hired as recruits later become the applicant pool for supervisory positions within their department.(7) This means that the effectiveness of methods used for selecting recruits has important implications for the future leadership of that particular police department.

The criticality of making appropriate decisions in the selection of police officers cannot be overemphasized. The scope of the potential consequences of actual, or perceived, police misconduct was brought into sharp focus by the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. A citizen's video-tape of police officers repeatedly beating King with nightsticks received much exposure on national television and was later introduced as evidence in the trial of the four officers. The most serious repercussion of this incident was a series of riots, which started within hours after the officers were acquitted on most of the state charges. Forty-four people died, and over 2000 people were injured during the Los Angeles riot. In addition, looting and arson were widespread.s The resulting property damage was greater than that of any other civil disturbance in U.S. history; surpassing even that of the 1965 Watts riots.(9) Total property losses are expected to exceed $1 billion.(10)

Given police officers' power as well as the public safety issues and related civil liability risks, it is important that great care be taken in the selection of police recruits. For this reason, considerable efforts have been made over the years to find the most effective selection procedures to use with this applicant population.

The purpose of this paper is two-fold. One purpose is to provide a comprehensive review of the literature on the use of assessment centers (ACs) in selecting entry-level law enforcement officers. The second purpose is to propose that ACs, which have been used most widely by police departments for promotion purposes,(11) are a viable option for selecting police recruits.

Methods Used In Police Selection

Chenowith opined that, at least up until the late 1950s, the techniques used in hiring police officers differed little from those used by the Metropolitan Police Department of London when it began operations in 1829.

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