Dealing with a demanding population, such as police officers, where workplace stressors are complex and legally and culturally challenging, requires an expertise that not every licensed psychologist can fill. In fact, the exact opposite is often the case: psychologists without specialized knowledge and training can actually do more harm than good when treating police officers or consulting with department related to assessment. This is the first in a series of articles that explore why it’s mission-critical — to the well-being of personnel, the department, and the general public — to work with a qualified police psychologist.

Not everyone is an expert

These days it seems everyone claims to be an expert. No matter your profession, or your calling, you’re bound to encounter a colleague or a rival who professes to have all the answers. Which is fine, when it comes to general fact-finding or short-term problem-solving. Yet when situations require a specific expertise, it’s time to call a specialist; if you rely upon past methods using the same approach in these situations, then the results will be sub-optimal. 

Nowhere is this more critical than in providing psychological services to a complex, highly scrutinized, and even marginalized population, such as police officers, whose workplace and private lives are often characterized by complex and challenging stress factors. Providing access to a specialist psychologist is extremely important in handling certain matters successfully, such as conducting pre-employment and fitness-for-duty evaluations.

What does ‘qualified’ mean?

Quite often however, a situation arises that requires an expertise that not every licensed psychologist can fill. For example, a “generalist” psychologist is not likely informed about the psycho-legal intricacies of practices in conducting medical evaluations, such as for pre-employment positions. Nor do generalists tend to appreciate the appropriateness, influencing case law, and fundamental processes in fitness-for-duty evaluations. Such lack of insight not only leads to sub-optimal psychological services, it impacts the rights of the officers and ultimately the general community. 

In these cases, among so many others, you need a “qualified” psychologist, one with specialized knowledge and advanced training in police and public safety psychology as well as legal influences that impact practice. A “police psychologist” is someone who is trained in psychology, and has additional training, knowledge, and experience related to police and public safety psychology, informed by continuous professional membership, practice, and scholarship and presentations.

Specialists can be specific

Even within the field of police psychology, however, practitioners are not masters of all the various areas of sub-specialty practice. Areas of subspecialty practice range from pre-employment psychological evaluations to the specialty practice of fitness-for-duty evaluations to providing departments and personnel more psychological intervention and wellness, such as post-critical incident processing. There are just too many factors for one person to meet the threshold of “expert” in all domains of specialized practice of police psychology.  This is precisely the point: when it comes to hiring a psychologist for your department, you need to look beyond the one-size-fits-all mindset of general psychology and find an expert who can handle the specific needs of your employees and constituents.

Why is a specialist necessary? 

Perhaps the most important factor that separates police psychologists from others is that they are behavioral scientists, with specialized training beyond traditional clinical training. It is this specialization that allows them to fulfill the ethical competency standard. In other words, they are specifically trained to enhance day-to-day police operations, improve morale, minimize department liability, and offer professional insights to establish best practices and assist department operations. 

Also, police psychologists belong to professional organizations and regularly attend or participate at conferences; some examples include the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, Division 18 of the American Psychological Association, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.  Such attendance and participation assure continuity of professional competence and specialized knowledge, which includes insight into continual development of best practices as well as legal influences in practice.  Hiring a police psychologist with professional membership is critical on so many levels. 

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