As he no doubt knows, new Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox will arrive this month to face daunting expectations. Mayor Michelle Wu’s selection of a commissioner who once suffered a near-fatal beating at the hands of Boston cops was meant to send a message about her commitment to police reform — and it did.
But Cox and Wu are confronting a culture of police violence and corruption that is so entrenched it may prove once again to be intractable, unless the pair have new tools at their disposal. Massachusetts should change the law so that one useful tool can be put in reformers’ hands: robust pre-employment psychological screenings for police department applicants, which include the use of a polygraph.
Federal law prohibits most private employers from using polygraph screening for job applicants. Massachusetts law goes further, ruling it out for public employees as well. But police officer jobs are different from other roles in the private or public sector, and it is reasonable to apply different standards to recruiting and hiring them. Police officers are given firearms and entrusted with the power to use lethal force at their discretion. Massachusetts should reconsider the prohibition against the polygraph as part of psychological screening, because this restriction does far more to preserve a violent culture within police departments than it does to protect the public or individual job seekers.
I don’t make this suggestion lightly. Polygraphs, or lie detectors, have always been controversial. They should be evaluated only by trained professionals and should be used as part of a suite of tools in the hiring process, not as a standalone. But in my experience as mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., I saw compelling evidence of their usefulness in weeding out individuals whose psychological profiles mean they should never carry a badge and a gun.
Our goal was not to get applicants to confess to crimes. The test is for psychological characteristics with a focus on authoritarian tendencies, because we believe these, even more than other problematic factors such as racism or implicit bias, are both easier to detect and ultimately the most predictive of violent behavior down the road.
Authoritarian individuals are those who feel they must be obeyed. They are bullies who demand subordination from others and display aggressive, impulsive traits. When we administered our combined polygraph and psychological screening, we found a sharp contrast between these unsuitable applicants’ statements in their earlier job interviews and their answers during the final screening process.
We had applicants who told us they wanted to be police officers because an uncle was a cop, or because they wanted to serve the community, who later confessed the real reason was their love of guns. We had applicants who told us during the polygraph that they were bullied as kids, wanted the respect they were denied elsewhere, or needed to teach “those people” who disrespected them a lesson. Frighteningly, the phrase “those people” was one that arose again and again. Sometimes applicants admitted to a history of violence. The results were sobering, to say the least.
Once we added this step to our application process five years ago, it helped us eliminate a full 75 percent of applicants we otherwise would have hired. We were disturbed when we saw many of those applicants hired in other departments. Meanwhile in Ithaca, we reaped the benefits. The metrics are still coming in, but it quickly became evident that the officers whose conduct caused the city to be embroiled in lawsuits were hired before we instituted the new screening.
We also found that instituting the screening as a pre-employment step, rather than post-employment, was not objected to by the police union. There just aren’t many good arguments against a publicly stated goal of preventing bullies and sadists from putting on the uniform. The pre-employment period is a window of opportunity for making a number of changes to recruiting and hiring officers that will significantly reduce the risk of hiring unfit officers, as my colleagues and I outline in a newly released report, “All Safe: Transforming Public Safety.”
We understand the skepticism that what works in a city the size of Ithaca (population 32,000) may not be scalable for the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas. But small cities have often served as laboratories of democracy for reforms that larger cities eventually adopt. I feel confident stating that if Boston has the ability to screen out police recruits with an authoritarian streak, it will greatly reduce police violence, save the city millions of dollars in lawsuits, and increase trust with the public, who will know that officers they encounter have been screened to eliminate those prone to violence. I have seen these effects firsthand.
The reality is that once an unfit person is on the police force, it can be virtually impossible to remove them. No city knows this better than Boston, where former police union president and serial child abuser Patrick Rose was finally sent to prison this year after decades of having his crimes swept under the rug. In June, The Boston Globe reported that the new statewide recertification process for officers — heralded as a sign of reform — had reviewed the records of more than 6,000 people and found fewer than 10 unfit to certify. Critics are justifiably skeptical.
It can be very hard to undo the mistakes of the past. And our tools are neither perfect nor foolproof. But when there is an opportunity to set a new course for the future, we should take it, using and improving on the means currently at our disposal. The old proverb says the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. Boston’s police reformers need every tool in the toolbox, and they need them now.
Svante Myrick, who served as mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., from 2012 to 2022, is executive director of People For the American Way.