FAQs: Forensic and Police Psychology

Dr. Zelig | FAQs:  Forensic and Police Psychology

Frequently Asked Questions about Forensic and Police Psychologists

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1. What is the difference between police and forensic psychologists?

Forensic psychology is defined by the American Board of Forensic Psychology as “the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. The word “forensic” comes from the Latin word “forensis,” meaning “of the forum,” where the law courts of ancient Rome were held. Today forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where specially knowledgeable scientists play a role.” Forensic psychologists may address a variety of topics such as child custody, competency to proceed in trial, evaluating the psychological impact of a personal injury that is being litigated, the validity of claims of child sexual abuse, profiles of criminal offenders, and a long list of other topics in which a psychologist is being asked to answer a psycholegal or investigative question.

Police psychology is a separate subspeciality of psychology that has been defined as, “The delivery of psychological services to and on behalf of law enforcement agencies, their executives, and employees . . . The field of police psychology is extremely diverse and involves more than 50 distinct proficiencies . . . . The police psychology proficiencies can be clustered or organized into four distinct domains of practice: (1) assessment related activities, (2) intervention services, (3) operational support, and (4) organizational/mnagement consultation” (Aumiller & Corey, 2007, pp. 66-67).

Other psychologists who provide regular clinical services within the context of a police department are probably best described as “clinical psychologists providing services within law enforcement,” and not as a police or forensic psychologists, since they are providing clinical services within a police department, and not engaging in any of the activities that distinguish others as either forensic or police psychologists.

2. What sort of things do police psychologists really do?

Police psychologists are usually doctoral level clinicians who have migrated into a law enforcement position. Most serve as consultants; that is, they have an independent practice and are hired to consult. Because most North American police departments have fewer than 15 total employees, it is not feasible for all departments to have a police
psychologist as a staff member. When departments have more than 700 sworn officers, many departments hire their own full time psychologist(s).

Police psychologists serve in a number of ways. They provide pre-employment screening of applicants (to make sure someone is fit to serve), provide counseling to employees, perform fitness for duty evaluations (to determine if an employee is still capable of performing their duties) and often engage in crime specific consultation (E.g., consulting
with hostages, profiling), and provide training to employees.

I wrote an article over 20 years ago, which appears to be to still be relevant regarding the roles of police psychologists. This article provides a detailed breakdown of such activities. In general, staff psychologists, hired by the agency, spend most of their time doing therapy and training, whereas consultants are more likely to be engaged in assessment activities (e.g., pre-employment and fitness for duty evaluations). The reference is: Zelig, M. (1987). Clinical services and demographic characteristics of police psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 18, 269- 275.

3. What is the best preparation to be a police or forensic psychologist?

I strongly believe the worst preparation is to focus one’s studies too specifically in forensic or police-related topics at the expense of getting a general clinical psychology education. Surprising to some, the question I am most often asked in police departments is AHow do I know if my kid has Attention Deficit Disorder?@ Much less frequently asked is “What is the psychological profile of this serial offender?” Since police personnel are much more similar
to the general population than they are different, a broad clinical grounding is the best way to prepare. Once you have a Ph.D, you can start specializing in police or other fields of psychology. You will never be a good specialist if you are not a good generalist. And incidentally, having a doctorate is the standard. Folks with lesser degrees usually do not
find opportunities in law enforcement or forensic areas.

This may be discouraging to some who would like to focus their efforts in one of these interesting areas, at the expense of obtaining a good general education. However, remember that physicians do not specialize until they have completed and graduated from medical school.

4. Yes, but are there specific things I can do to prepare to see if I would like this sort of work?

Certainly. For those interested in law enforcement applications, see if you can ride with officers, or better yet, see if you are able to volunteer as a reserve or special function officer. Ask your academic advisor if there is a local police psychologist who might be willing to mentor you. Learn something about criminal investigation. Examples of such classes and experiences may include the following:

  • Take a course in criminal investigation from the Criminal Justice Department (a police psychologist who consults on crimes needs to know how to interpret physical evidence).
  • Go to a workshop on blood spatter evidence.
  • Take a workshop in hostage negotiation.
  • Observe some autopsies. The first ones are rough for everybody, but if you stay totally grossed out after 3-4 of these, this may be signal that (at lease the crime specific consultation part of) police psychology may not be the kind of work you really want to get into.
  • One of the best learning experiences is to attend the annual workshops on police psychology offered by the various organizations listed below. This gives the prospective police psychologist the opportunity to rub shoulders with the nation’s most well-known police psychologists.

  • Visit the American Board of Forensic Psychology at http://www.abfp.com. They offer the best continuing education workshops on a variety of forensic topics, from some of the top forensic psychologists in North America. This series is offered at approximately five different locations in North America during each year.

5. How do I learn to be a profiler?

Get a good general and diverse clinical education. You never know what will come up. For example, I profiled a homicide in which I drew on my early training as a school psychologist to interpret some writing on a wall that was obviously written by someone with a learning disability.

Also, if you want to be a real profiler make sure you have additional sources of income. Unless you are an FBI agent assigned to their profiling unit, I do not know any real psychologist who does this full time.

Most referrals for profiling involve real tough cases with little physical evidence. You start with a case that has a low probability of being solved. If more evidence were available, they would resolve the case using conventional methods and not need you as a profiler. Thus, you will only get feedback on who the perpetrator was in a minority of the cases and therefore you usually will not learn if your formulation was highly accurate or very inaccurate.

6. Are there any guidelines published for police psychologists?

Yes, and these are available at the International Association of Chiefs of Police web site. Go to http://theiacp.org/div_sec_com/sections/psych.htm. There you will find guidelines on:

  • Fitness for duty evaluations
  • Officer-involved shooting guidelines
  • Peer Support Guidelines
  • Pre-employment Psychological Evaluation Guidelines

7. Are there any published guidelines regarding forensic psychology?

Yes, if you go to http://www.abfp.com/careers.asp you can download the Speciality Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. There are also links to programs that provide forensic training.

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