The Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Evaluation

Article excerpt

Physical problems, such as an injured knee or high blood pressure, sometimes arise that may affect officers' abilities to perform their duties effectively. Or, their performance may remain unchanged. However, if supervisors or commanding officers perceive that an individual's limp or frequent headaches impair job performance, they may recommend that the employee seek medical attention. If the problem persists, they may refer the officer for a medical evaluation, during which the examining doctor will declare the individual medically able to return to work, recommend a course of treatment to restore a proper level of health, or classify the officer as permanently unfit for duty.

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Similarly, if supervisors suspect that personality disorders or stress reactions cause or contribute to problem behavior or substandard performance and the usual channels of review, coaching, counseling, and discipline have failed to effect a substantial change, they may order a formal psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation (FFDE). (1) Through such an exam, agencies hope to determine an officer's psychological capability of remaining on the job and to identify, if necessary, measures to help improve the employee's effectiveness or reasonable accommodations to allow the officer to work in spite of residual disabilities. (2)

The FFDE functions, in part, to provide a basis for recommendations concerning education, retraining, counseling, or treatment. (3) Ideally, agencies will use the evaluation to help find ways to rehabilitate officers. Humaneness aside, salvaging an established employee is more cost-effective than hiring, training, and supervising a new one; for obvious reasons, departments should resort to discipline and dismissal as a last resort. However, although it never should be used as a substitute for adequate supervision and discipline, a carefully conducted and documented FFDE can provide a psychologically justifiable and legally defensible rationale for terminating an officer who cannot or will not meet the standards of the employing agency.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL FFDE

The Evaluation

Initial Considerations

The FFDE combines elements of risk management, mental health intervention, labor law, and departmental discipline. (4) According to current International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) guidelines, a licensed psychologist or board-certified psychiatrist with law enforcement experience must conduct the evaluation. (5) However, the guidelines do not specify how much experience is sufficient, and, as yet, no generally accepted formal credentialing exists for police psychologists as a distinct professional specialty. Thus, the level of law enforcement training or experience of these clinicians may vary considerably by agency.

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When referring an employee for an FFDE, supervisors should provide specific referral questions. For example, they should not simply note that "Officer Jones seems depressed, and this condition interferes with his work." Rather, the referring supervisor could state, "Officer Jones arrived late to shift five times this past month; on several occasions, has been visibly fatigued and in physical distress; has appeared absentminded and distracted; and has been the subject of three citizen complaints of abuse of force during the past evaluation period. These actions represent a clear deterioration from previous evaluation periods and reflect a pattern of substandard performance. Upon interview, Officer Jones denies any problem."

Recommendations for Officers

Understandably, officers probably will not look forward to an FFDE. However, they can take measures to help the process go smoothly and for the results to provide an accurate picture of their true psychological status.

First, officers should remain positive. They should recognize that the examiner's only job is to objectively evaluate the officer's mental status in view of the specific referral questions and to determine the employee's fitness for duty. …