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Emotional Intelligence & Law Enforcement: The Chicken and the Egg

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Matt Selker
March 13, 2015

Selker marchMy December 2014 article in the PA Times online ignited a conversation on emotional intelligence (Ei) and its application to law enforcement. Questions and discussions arose, some criticism ensued. Suggestions that my lack of law enforcement experience disqualified my position and the argument that law enforcement officers are already required to pass psychological screening during candidacy, so Ei screening is not necessary, were voiced. Having completed months of due diligence yielding an appreciation for current psychological screening, this article is intended to discuss the idea of screening law enforcement candidates for Ei qualities versus training law enforcement on Ei competencies.

Screen For Competencies

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize emotions in oneself and others and to use this knowledge for improved self-management and relationships with others. There are four important competencies that bring to awareness one’s Ei:

  1. Self-awareness.
  2. Self-management.
  3. Social awareness.
  4. Relationship management.

One of the exciting facts about Ei is that through the proceeding measurable competencies, actors can recognize their feelings, the feelings of others, develop response strategies and facilitate group emotions in a measurable manner.

Ei competencies are important because they help mitigate the impact of implicit biases. While some implicit biases assist the limbic system, one of the steps in our automatic danger-system that alerts us by activating our fear response system commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, others engage the domain of prejudice. As human behavior is influenced by mental associations, along with impulses, motivations, emotions and more, Ei (specifically through self-awareness and self-management) essentially scrutinizes implicit biases and aids in decision-making and more.

Screening for Ei differs significantly from the current police psychological screening. Police psychological screening was instituted in 1986, yet still lacks one uniform protocol. The Police Psychological Services Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police established the first set psychological screening guidelines (revised in 2004) suggesting, “the screening should be focused on an individual candidate’s ability to perform the essential function of the position under consideration.” Current screening protocols, put forward by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), attempt to identify applicants with current mental illness or characteristics or tendencies toward unnecessary violence or poor impulse control. Even these minimal standards are indiscriminately imposed. As of 2009, only 31 states mandated psychological testing of police recruits using approximately 7 different screening instruments.

In my humble opinion, this demonstrates and accelerates our ‘race to the law-enforcement bottom.’  Certainly, screening out candidates with mental illness is essential, as is screening in candidates with desirable Ei competencies especially those that will move the law enforcement community in the direction of community engagement rather than isolation and further decline. Spillover benefits to screening in Ei competencies, in addition to improved community engagement, include improved organizational culture and leadership, decreased turnover and improved familial experience. Again, screening out undesirable characteristics, while screening in desirable characteristics, is the first step in building a high-performing law enforcement community.

Train For Sustainable Success 

Another approach to institutionalizing Ei competencies within the law enforcement community deploys training. Of the many positive attributes of Ei competencies, the fact that they are learnable is extremely important. In fact, experiential learning, accompanied by age-related emotional maturity, develops and nurtures Ei competencies. Therefore, strategic training must be part of the equation.

However, merely training is not enough. Research suggests that when combining training with coaching, trainees are 95 percent more likely to turn acquired knowledge into action. Ei competency development must to be leveraged with supportive social capital, coaching and engaged leadership. Furthermore, training must be supported by organizational policies and practices, recruitment efforts, accurate appraisal and feedback systems to be sustainable. There also must be unified resources committed by leadership, at both departmental and organizational levels. As you see, there are a number of moving parts to this successful equation.

The Chicken AND The Egg 

In conclusion, this is not a ‘chicken OR egg’ discussion, rather a ‘chicken AND egg’ discussion. Prospective law enforcement officers must be screened by both an agreed upon, standardized psychological instrument and Ei instrument. Chosen candidates then need continued training and support, which is exactly the prescription for existing law enforcement participants. In addition, participants must seek continual improvement, have the ability to participate in feedback exchange, possess a readiness for change and desire to build healthy personal and professional relationships. When you leverage screening and training with coaching, supportive policy, screening & evaluation and reinforcement practices, achieving an engaging law enforcement team is not only possible, but probable.


Author: Matt Selker is a management consultant. His firm is hired by public and private organizations striving for improved performance through their human capital. Mr. Selker holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Edinboro University of PA, master’s degree in Public Administration from Cleveland State University-Levine College of Public Affairs and gained his education in organizational development and change from Case Western Reserve University-Weatherhead School of Management. He can be reached via email at [email protected]

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