The police psychologist is the subspecialist within the realm of forensic psychology that works most directly with, and often times within, law enforcement agencies including police departments, sheriff’s departments and federal law enforcement agencies. Of the subspecialties described by Bartol and Bartol (2008) to include police psychology, psychology of crime and delinquency, victimology and victim services, legal psychology, and correctional psychology, police psychology is the one that has the strongest tie to my near decade of experience as a law enforcement official and the strongest tie to my professional goal to bring knowledge and mutual understanding to both the law enforcement and mental health professions with a focus on collaborative efforts that ensure clients receive the combined services from both professions that they need to overcome crisis and psychological trauma. Bartol and Bartol (2008) describe five common tasks that a police psychologist may be asked to do as “[assisting] police departments in determining optimal shift schedules for their employees, [assisting] police in developing psychological profiles of serial offenders, [establishing] reliable and valid screening procedures for law enforcement officer positions at various police and sheriff departments, [training] police officers on how to deal with mentally ill citizens, and [providing] counseling services to officers after a shooting incident” (pp. 9-11). Of the roles offered by Bartol and Bartol, the two that are of significant interest to me are those that involve training officers on interactions with mentally ill citizens and providing critical incident stress management assistance and counseling to law enforcement personnel.
Training for law enforcement officers on interactions with mentally ill citizens is an issue not often seen as important by many in the profession. While this perception may permeate the minds of many law enforcement professionals, the reality is that 26.4% of Americans have mental illnesses occur during any given recent year (Demyttenaere, Bruffaerts, & Posada-Villa, 2004) and law enforcement will frequently encounter those individuals who become suicidal, psychologically decompensate, have a psychotic episode that generates a call to 911 from the public, or have a co-morbid substance dependence or abuse that results in an arrest for possession of an illicit drug. Proper training to all law enforcement officers on identification of individuals who may be suffering from mental illness, who may be in psychological crisis, and who may need psychopharmacological and/or psychotherapeutic treatment in lieu of or in addition to arrest and incarceration can provide for better outcomes for both the mental health consumers and the police officers who encounter them.
The mental health of law enforcement personnel must also be considered long after the screening procedures for applicants are established and utilized to narrow an applicant pool to statistically well-adjusted individuals as law enforcement officers frequently encounter traumatic events during the course of their professional responsibilities. A non-scholastic source that reports on police suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder among law enforcement professionals notes that PTSD symptoms can be found among 15 to 18 percent of law enforcement officers (Police Suicide Myths, 2012). While police psychologists working within law enforcement agencies can be more able to identify problems and provide early intervention as well as therapeutic support, a balance must be struck so that the psychologist does not become invisible and thus limited in usefulness to the larger goals of police psychology (Reiser, 1973).
While the various subspecialties of forensic psychology do exist, the interrelation between them must always be remembered. The overriding role of the forensic psychologist, no matter the subspecialty, is to apply psychological principles and research to the arena of the legal system whether that is through crime prevention strategies, investigative support, victim services, competency evaluations, correctional program management, or release assessments.
Police Suicide Myths. (2012). Retrieved from The Badge of Life: http://www.badgeoflife.com/currentmyths.php
Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2008). Introduction to Forensic Psychology: Research and Application. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Demyttenaere, K., Bruffaerts, R., & Posada-Villa, J. (2004). Prevalence, Severity, and Unmet Need for Treatment of Mental Disorders in World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(21), 2581-2590.
Reiser, M. (1973, May). The Police Psychologist: A New Role. Professional Psychology, 4(2), 119-120.
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