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Sheriff overhauls applicant psych test

Believes old system rejected good people

It began with three applicants.

Three people vying for spots with the Allen County Sheriff’s Department in 2007, all with law enforcement experience and a good record with their previous department. The only problem was that none passed the psychological exam given to sheriff’s applicants, even though they passed previous exams with other agencies.

“These were good officers who were diligent, hardworking and honest in their police work,” said Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries, who had his eye on each applicant throughout the hiring process. “I began to wonder, is this (psychological) testing fair?”

The situation caused Fries to overhaul the testing requirements last year for his prospective officers, making the test similar to those of other departments in the area. Whereas a clinician did not oversee or review written testing for the sheriff’s department before, a local psychologist now evaluates test results.

With testing he considers far better than before, Fries cannot estimate how many good applicants he might have lost because of previous evaluations, or how many people might be on the department that might not have been able to pass the current testing.

“You can’t have it one way without the other,” Fries said. “What happened in the last month, though, shows we have a process in place, that we have checks and balances, so if there is someone we are concerned about, we can take the appropriate actions if they must be removed.”

Last month, the sheriff’s merit board fired former officer Brent Whan for anger problems he’s accused of displaying while on duty during new officer training. Fries petitioned the board for the officer’s termination in November after he received psychological and medical evaluations he ordered to be conducted on Whan.

Whan was hired in early 2007 after going through the old psychological evaluations.

After starting in the department’s civil division, Whan transferred to the warrants division in September 2009 and began a basic training program.

He’s accused of becoming too angry to leave the squad car to assist a state trooper after a botched radio call on one occasion.

Then, an argument with his training officer, Jason Baker, prompted Baker to end that day’s session. Baker recommended to department officials that Whan not finish the training.

Tim Stuckey, Whan’s attorney, previously told The Journal Gazette his client had been diagnosed with a sleeping disorder and told supervisors he was having trouble sleeping. A switch to third shift aggravated this disorder and the stress of a condensed training program contributed to his irritability, Stuckey had said.

While he would not comment on whether Whan could have been hired after going through the new psychological evaluations, Fries said that testimony during Whan’s termination hearing indicated his anger problems did surface on the old tests but were missed by the previous test reviewer, who was not a psychologist.

“To evaluate, you need to know the background of these people,” Fries said, something he didn’t feel was coming through with the previous test.

To initiate the testing change, Fries first went to Dr. Stephen Ross, a local psychologist who frequently testifies in criminal cases in Allen County.

Fries asked Ross to review the way testing was conducted and to tell him whether there was anything inaccurate or faulty in how the evaluations were administered or reviewed. According to Fries, Ross did see some problems, one being that a clinician could better review such tests.

Fries then hired Ross to do his department’s psychological evaluations at $400 a test, down from $485 the previous tester charged.

Ross would not talk much about what’s on his tests so not to give future applicants an edge. He said, though, his tests don’t look at answers in the realm of society norms, but “cop norms.” In tests that look for the norms of general society, some of what a police officer displays might come off as pathological, Ross said.

But it might be what’s needed for the job.

“You want a police officer to be dominant, but not abusive,” Ross said. “You want a cop to use verbal techniques to take control of a situation. You want a cop with the guts to take control of a situation.”

One thing Ross offers is an alternative test for applicants who have worked in law enforcement previously, have a good record with other departments, but may have questionable results on the initial test. He said he also gives feedback to applicants after the test if they ask, something that might not have been done before.

Many other area police departments use professional clinicians for their psychological testing already. The Fort Wayne Police Department, the Indiana State Police and DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department are just a few.

“We have that expert opinion to rely on,” said Chief Deputy Jay Oberholtzer of the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department, which uses a local doctor to administer the tests. “It’s more of a responsible way to pick your applicant.”

Fries, who joined the force before psychological testing was required, said he is far happier with the current evaluation model, which comes toward the end of the hiring process.

He said it’s never an exact science, but this is more accurate than he had in place before.

And it has already paid one dividend, at least for Fries. One of the three prospective officers that sparked the change reapplied to the department in the past year and passed the new psychological test.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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