4.5. Recruitment and Hiring in Policing

Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, students will be able to:

  • Describe the parts of the written test
  • Discuss why a candidate must study, study, study, for the oral board interview
  • Explain the type of questions on an oral board interview
  • List the different types of a physical agility test
  • Explain why departments are starting to utilize the assessment center test
  • Recognize why a candidate’s background is the most important part of the testing process
  • Describe why candidates fear the psychological evaluation
  • Understand the B-Pad Video Test

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What is on the written test?
  2. How should a candidate study for the oral board interview?
  3. What is the best way to prepare for the physical agility test?
  4. How can a candidate prepare for an assessment center?
  5. What is the best way to start preparing for the background investigation and interview?
  6. Does the psychological evaluation only check if a candidate is psycho or crazy?

History of Law Enforcement Recruitment and Hiring

As it happens, the history of formal, competitive police recruitment (and training) is quite short. Before the 1960s, as long as the candidate was a white male with a heartbeat – and there was an opening available – the job was most likely his. Women and officers of color were all but non-existent on police forces. Women were only allowed into the ‘boys club’ if they wore a pencil skirt and fit a prescribed, feminized role. In some departments, women were allowed to work in the detective bureau and interview child victims (because women supposedly had better rapport with children, due to their ‘maternal’ instincts.) These stereotypes continued limit the policing careers of women and people of color, until the passage of Civil Rights legislation targeting employment discrimination in the 1960s. Over the same period of time, the Law Enforcement Assistant Act provided funding incentives for police departments throughout the country to install minimum recruiting and training standards for all applicants.

Getting Hired: The Application Process

One of the most challenging entry-level recruitment processes in the United States is for the position of police officer. There is a good reason why this process is so difficult and thorough; a police officer, once hired and trained, becomes endowed with great power – the authority to take away a person’s freedom, and moreover, employ deadly force when warranted. Naturally, this type of power should not be given to just anyone; rather, the testing process should be rigorous and thorough.

Written Police Exam

While the written exam used to screen initial candidates varies by not only state, but by department, these tests may be generally compared with the ACT and SAT. In fact, a high proportion of the candidates that take the written test fail the first time. Written police exams generally showcase the following types of questions:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • Spelling and Grammar
  • Observation/Memory
  • Deductive Reasoning/Inductive Reasoning
  • Spatial Orientation
  • Math
  • Essay/Incident Report Writing/Written Communication
  • Analytical Ability
  • Work Experience
  • Personality

While every department is different, there are two basic ways that the written test is administered. The first is through an online testing service. The candidate registers online to take the test and then will go to a pre-determined location (such as a library) with a proctor, and take the written exam on a computer. The candidate can then send their exam score to the participating law enforcement agency to which they’re is applying. The second is through the law enforcement agency itself. The agency the candidate is testing for will post the written test date, and the candidate will register to take the exam. Many agencies score the written test on site, and the candidate learns right there and then if they have a passing score to move forward in the application process. The passing score also varies by agency. Most departments require at least a seventy percent to pass the written test and move on in the hiring process.

Test Prep: The Law Enforcement Aptitude Battery (LEAB)

Interested in checking out the first stage of the application process? Click here to review a preparation guide for the Law Enforcement Aptitude Battery (LEAB) test, one of four exams commonly used in Pennsylvania, and the specific exam employed by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police.

Physical Agility Test

Most police departments also employ some test meant to capture physical fitness and agility; in PA, all applicants are required to meet a 30% standard for four different exercises/activities, in order to enter a certified training academy. Moreover, every cadet must continuously test throughout the academy, and continue to meet or exceed the 30% entrance standard. These standards are specific to applicant gender and age:

  18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+
Sit Ups (# in 1 min) 35 32 27 21 17
300m Run (seconds) 62.1 63 77 87 87
Push-ups (# in 1 min) 26 20 15 10 10
1.5 mile Run (min/sec) 13:15 13:44 14:34 15:50 15:50
  18-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+
Sit-ups (# in 1 min) 30 22 17 12 4
300m Run (sec) 75 82 106.7 106.7 106.7
Push-ups (# in 1 min) 13 9 7 7 7
1.5 mile Run (min/sec) 15:46 16:42 17:29 19:10 19:10

Oral Exam or Interview

The oral exam or interview can be one of the most daunting steps for any candidate who proceeds through the hiring process. In Pennsylvania, these exams typically ask candidates to describe their behavior within a given police scenario; they may also be informed of different policies or regulations that legally restrict their behavior on the job. Scoring may be performed by current officers on the job, or a trained board of raters. While questions focus on realistic police scenarios, candidates are not assumed to already have a deep technical understanding of law enforcement strategy or criminal law. Instead, the oral exam is meant to assess applicants’ communication skills, reasoning and decision-making, integrity, and personality fit for the job (for example, their self-control and empathy).

Test Prep: Oral Exams for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and PA State Police

Both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police publish oral examination preparation guides, so candidates know what to expect if they make it late into the application process. Click on the name of each agency above to review their prep manual.

Background Investigation

The background investigation is probably one of the most critical portions of the testing process. After the candidate passes the written, phyiscal fitness/agility, and oral interview, they are given a background packet to fill out. The packet is very thorough and asks the candidate everything from where they went to school, worked, prior drug use, prior arrests, and prior illegal actions/criminal activity (even if not arrested). The background investigation can take days or weeks, in order to ensure candidates’ honesty and moral compass. The biggest “snags” at this stage of the process tend to concern prior drug use and criminal activity. Unfortunately, most agencies do not list their requirements on past drug use openly, while many utilize the FBI’s drug use policy. However, most agencies reserve the right to make their own decisions for each individual candidate.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police: Decertifying Criteria

According to the PBP, the following list includes some (but not all) “background issues” that can lead to an applicant being removed from the hiring process.

Psychological Evaluation

The psychological evaluation is one of the least understood stages of the hiring process. Indeed, there is no way to study for the psych eval. The best advice is to tell the truth (a statement that holds true for every part of the hiring process). However, it is important to understand that the “psych eval” is not just looking for candidates who suffer from mental illnesses that would render them unfit for service; rather, it is also seeking to identify those who will not make good police officers, or have aggression issues. Some departments require both a written psychological exam and an oral psychological interview. While polygraph exams have been generally discredited, and abandoned by many agencies, some large organizations, such as the Pennsylvania State Police, continue to deploy them.

The Lie Detector: Science or Intimidation?

Interested in the history of the lie detector, and the science (or mythology) behind it? Check out this 2023 documentary which claims that “the promise of the polygraph has turned dark.”

Medical Examination

By the time a candidate conducts a medical examination, they may already have a conditional offer of employment; the state where the candidate will work ultimately determines the depth and rigor of the medical exam or physical. Possible testing that might occur at this phase of the testing process includes:

  • Blood/urine/hair drug tests
  • Hearing test
  • Eye examination
  • Lung capacity
  • EKG
  • Treadmill stress test
  • Chest X-Ray
  • Cholesterol test
  • Various other blood tests

In the News: Should Recruitment Standards Be Weakened?

Even as many call for stronger eligibility standards for law enforcement officers nationwide, some agencies – facing recruitment crises – have moved to lower their application criteria. Take, for example, the Bethlehem Police Department in southeastern Pennsylvania, which recently removed or lowered application requirements involving education, physical fitness, and personal references. Read more here.


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4.5. Recruitment and Hiring in Policing Copyright © 2019 by Tiffany Morey and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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