The Business of Practice

What is Police Psychology and Is It a Career for You?

Police psychology is the field where professionals like forensic psychologists, police,
and public safety officials intersect. This career requires specialization and additional training
beyond earning a clinical psychology degree. 
Certifications and continuing education credits in forensic psychology or police and public safety
are essential to advance in the industry. Most police psychologists run private practices
and offer consultation services for the complex problems in their distinctive branch of work.
Police psychologists are the professionals to deal with when asking the following questions:

1. When do police need to understand and assess mental health?
2. How do we decide who is in charge of the public’s safety?
3. What behaviors do police need to try to understand before hiring?
4. Which officers do we elect into leadership positions?
5. What are long-term structural solutions to public mental health issues?

What is Police Psychology and Is It a Career for You?

What is Police Psychology?

Police psychologists are licensed clinical psychologists with specializations in the forensic field. They are experts in situations such as:

- How to select officers responsible for community safety
- How to help public safety officials cope with crisis or violence
- How to maintain organizational integrity within public safety

There are many specific examples where a psychologist needs additional training to meet the demands of those who work in the world of police and public safety. The field contains individuals who are much more likely to witness violent crimes, life and death situations, and the subsequent effects of these traumatic instances.

What Do Police Psychologists Do?

The American Psychological Association (APA) identifies the four main areas of police psychology as:

1. Assessment
2. Clinical Intervention
3. Operational Support
4. Organizational Consultation

According to the APA Police and Public Safety division, police psychologists work with branches like “law enforcement, fire departments, nuclear regulatory agencies, emergency medical services, and other public safety entities.” These fields work together to find solutions during public crisis situations, escalating mental health episodes, and domestic violence incidents to name a few.

Psychological assessments are vital for ensuring employees in the police and public safety field perform to their best ability. Police psychologists conduct assessments for public safety officers, such as background checks during the pre-employment process in addition to Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations (FFDE) and Police Officer Standards and Training (POST). 

FFDE’s are useful for employers to assess their employees’ capabilities within the work environment and evaluate an individual’s psychological fitness. The IACP provides a guideline detailing Psychological Fitness-for-Duty Evaluations. Nancy Ryba Panza Ph.D., who works as a police and forensic psychologist, covers a course on improving the use of Police Officer Standards and Trainings (POST) in pre-employment psychological evaluations. 

Clinical Intervention

Police psychologists are responsible for the psychological care of public safety officials, which involves Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) and stress management. Police psychologists are clinical psychologists, so they are able to provide traditional counseling. In partnership with the American Board of Police and Public Safety Psychology, Dr. Bohl-Penrod and Dr. Brower comment on the impacts and interventions in Critical Incident Response.

The process of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing is essential in a high-risk work environment where stress and trauma are frequent occurrences. Police psychologists help police officers and law enforcement agencies process the aftermath of psychologically distressing tasks in a group setting. Processing trauma is a crucial step to encourage the psychological longevity of public safety officials and to reduce the long-lasting emotional effects of their work.

Operational Support

Professionals in police psychology aim to reduce tension on the limited resources available in the mental health industry by training police with proper intervention and assessment skills. Police psychologists provide operational support in situations ranging from hostage negotiation to criminal profiling.

Police psychologists are responsible for educating law enforcement agencies on managing harm-reduction, mitigating bias, and promoting diversity. Additional examples of operational support include particularly unique situations at the intersection of mental health and forensics like hate crimes or cyberstalking.

Organizational Consultation

Organizational consultation refers to when police departments seek advice on promoting and maintaining the best institutional practices with expertise. Police psychologists combine their forensic and psychological field expertise to understand organizational efficiency, like recruitment and retainment, in public safety environments.

For example, the Oakland Police Department outlines a Framework for Reimagining Public Safety and establishes five focus areas. One area of focus deals with the decision to focus police efforts on violent crime by no longer responding to calls about the homeless population. This situation highlights where a police psychologist possesses the experience to provide valuable input.

Police, Public Safety Officials, and their Mental Health

Due to the stressful nature of the work, police with critical incident exposures are more likely to develop depression symptoms, PTSD, and suicidal intentions. Police psychology contributes toward limiting environmental work stressors and contributing to a healthier environment for police and public safety officials.

There is more public support to back research and provide evidence-based solutions to the psychological problems police and safety officials face. In a recent report from American University with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Re-Envisioning Police Training in the U.S. covers discourse surrounding the national police climate, ethical leadership, institutional barriers, funding, and many more pertinent topics to the forensic community. 

CONCEPT Professional Training provides education specialization for various police and public safety institutions including the Juvenile Probation in Bexar County, Texas, the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, and the South Dakota Department of Social Services. 

As long as there are working professionals in police and public safety, there remains a need for police psychologists to understand the unique issues within the setting. Public safety officers ensure community welfare when they obtain the skills necessary to connect the public with long-term solutions. 

To further understand how police and public safety research translates into clinical practice, explore this quick read on why eliminating biased policing is vital for improving perceptions of police legitimacy

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