Can polygraph tests weed out bad cops? - DMT NEWS

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Can polygraph tests weed out bad cops?

The Boston Globe recently printed an op-ed by former Ithaca, NY mayor Svante Myrick, who talks about his own city's approach to police reform. Myrick was originally elected when he was just 24 years old, and served in his position for 10 years, during which he dealt with a number of complications involving the police department in that 32,000-person city. I lived in Ithaca for two years during which Myrick was mayor; I thought he was generally a pretty good mayor, and while I personally had no negative police encounters during my time there, I'd heard plenty of horror stories — though none of them could quite compare to the various corruptions of the Boston Police Department.

The part of Myrick's op-ed that caught my eye, however, was his insistence that subjecting police force applications to a polygraph test helped to improve hiring:

Our goal was not to get applicants to confess to crimes. The test is for psychological characteristics with a focus on authoritarian tendencies, because we believe these, even more than other problematic factors such as racism or implicit bias, are both easier to detect and ultimately the most predictive of violent behavior down the road.

Authoritarian individuals are those who feel they must be obeyed. They are bullies who demand subordination from others and display aggressive, impulsive traits. When we administered our combined polygraph and psychological screening, we found a sharp contrast between these unsuitable applicants' statements in their earlier job interviews and their answers during the final screening process.


Once we added this step to our application process five years ago, it helped us eliminate a full 75 percent of applicants we otherwise would have hired. We were disturbed when we saw many of those applicants hired in other departments. Meanwhile in Ithaca, we reaped the benefits. The metrics are still coming in, but it quickly became evident that the officers whose conduct caused the city to be embroiled in lawsuits were hired before we instituted the new screening.

On one hand, I'm well aware that lie detector tests are generally bullshit. On the other hand, I'm intrigued by the idea that even the threat of a lie detector test might be enough to make some authoritarian bastards reveal their more authoritarian tendencies. The fact that these tests helped to eliminate 75 percent of potential job candidates is both wild … and, given the kind of people who tend to apply for policing jobs, not actually that surprising. While I'm certainly not convinced that the world needs more BS polygraph tests, I am still intrigued by these results, and Myrick makes some valid arguments. (Myrick notes that the Ithaca police union didn't oppose the test, but I suspect that would be some pushback in other places, not to mention some potential legal/discrimination claims.)

The city of Boston recently hired a new police commissioner named Michael Cox. Back in 1995, Cox, a Black man, was working on-duty as a plain-clothes officer, when a group of his colleagues on the Boston Police Department allegedly mistook him for a gang member, and assaulted him, beating him so bad that he was hospitalized for months. Cox stayed with the force, and diligently pursed a civil rights case against the officers who assaulted him; he ultimately won, and several of the officers involved in the attack were "disciplined," though none of them ever faced charges. As a result, Cox is vocally of reform — though obviously not defunding, as he's clearly stuck with his policing career — and it'll be interesting to see what kinds of changes he tries, and/or succeeds, to make.

To transform Boston policing, test for authoritarianism [Svante Myrick / Boston Globe]

Boston gets Police Commissioner who bad cops likely loathe. Let's see how this goes. [Chris Faraone / Dig Boston]

In the pre-dawn darkness of 1995, Officer Michael Cox became a crime victim — at the hands of fellow Boston police officers [John R. Ellement and Ivy Scott / Boston Globe]

Image: Lorie Shaull / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)



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Thom Dunn, Khareem Sudlow