Becoming a Police Psychologist
Three steps to getting your foot in the door.
Posted February 2, 2018
Once a month, sometimes once a week I get an email message from a person asking how to become a police psychologist. The requests are hopeful, optimistic, altruistic. Some are personal, the writer knows a cop; is or sometimes was married to a cop; very often was or still is a cop. The field of police psychology is growing along with the increased awareness that a career in law enforcement is highly stressful and occasionally toxic. There are several hundred police psychologists in the US and more around the world practicing in one or more of the following core domains: Intervention, Organizational Consulting, Operational Support, and Assessment.
Most police psychologists have PhD degrees although there are many exceptions, especially in the intervention domain. I was a clinical social worker when I started working in the field. If your aim is to specialize in assessment, you will need a Ph.D. If your aim is to specialize in therapy, consulting or operational support, a Ph.D. would be helpful, but not required. If you are still an undergraduate and wondering about graduate schools or student placements, check these two links for further information — The Society for Police and Criminal Psychology and The Wright Institute.
Law enforcement is a closed culture, skeptical of outsiders. In order to build a therapeutic alliance with a cop, you must be culturally competent; meaning you understand what cops do, why they do it, and the culture in which they work. The following three suggestions will help you get your foot in the door.
1. Be a self-starter and reach out to your local police agencies. There are two main ways to do this — police community activities and volunteering.
Community Activities. Many police departments offer the following. If your local agency does not, widen your search.
- Attend a citizen’s police academy
- Go on a ride-along; vary the shifts from busy to boring
- Attend a police funeral
- Tour your local detention center or prison
- Tour the 911 dispatch center
Volunteer Activities. Volunteering is a great way demonstrate your interest and your willingness to get involved, plus you get the satisfaction of helping your community.
- Help out with fleet maintenance, clerical duties, youth activities.
- Apply to be a reserve police officer. You’ll need to qualify first and then attend an academy.
2. If you are already a licensed clinician think about volunteering to teach classes in a subject you know well. It will give you a chance to learn about police work and give the department a chance to get to know you. Before you do, read more about cops as students (Counseling Cops: p. 247). The following is only a partial list of ideas for ways to share your clinical skills.
- Crisis intervention/dealing with emotionally disturbed citizens
- Peer support
- Interviewing skills
- Self-care & Wellness
- Preparing for retirement
- Sleep Hygiene
- Suicide Prevention
3. Engage in rigorous self-assessment. Not everyone is temperamentally suited to work with cops. Police Captain (ret.) Al Benner, Ph.D., a pioneer in police psychology, used to say that creating alliance with law enforcement clients was like building a three legged stool: It requires humor, transparency, and familiarity with the culture.
- Transparency: Are you willing to talk about yourself? Answer questions directly?
- Are you comfortable around guns?
- Are you prepared to listen to some tragic stories? Can you ask for help if you experience vicarious trauma?
- Do you have good self-care skills?
- Do you harbor any biases about cops, positive or negative?
- Have you immersed yourself in the culture?
For more information and ideas, please check out the above links and the references below, or ask me a question. I'm happy to respond.
Kirschman, E., Kamena, K., & Fay, J. (2014). Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know. New York, Guilford Press.
Bartol, C. & Bartol, A. (2008). Introduction to Forensic Psychology-Research and Application. Los Angeles, Sage Publications.