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Most police departments make recruits undergo psychological evaluation. Federal law enforcement agencies? Not so much.

The rules are different for the FBI, the ATF, the DEA and the U.S. marshals.
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building
Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 23, 2018.NewsBase / AP file

It’s long been the norm for big city police departments to require potential officers to sit through psychological evaluations before they get badges and guns. But the thousands of agents assigned to the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies under the Justice Department don’t need psychological assessments to police American streets, documents obtained by NBC News reveal.

That means the federal agency tasked with forcing local police departments to reform their standards, including telling cities like Baltimore and New Orleans to have applicants sit through psychological evaluations, isn’t following its own instructions.

Former federal and local law enforcement officials say the discrepancy in hiring standards is a well-known source of tension between police chiefs and the Justice Department.

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building
Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 23, 2018.NewsBase / AP file

“I think the average American believes that federal agents are the cream of the crop, they think DOJ sets the standards, but we don’t even polygraph or psych evaluate all our applicants,” said Jason Wojdylo, a recently retired chief inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service who is now a vice president with the Federal Managers Association, an employees association that advocates for law enforcement brass and other federal supervisors.

Wojdylo used a public records law to track down federal practices on pre-employment screening and uncovered the disparity between local police and their federal counterparts in psychological testing requirements. He shared the records with NBC News.

He also found a lack of consistency within the Justice Department in what its four major law enforcement agencies require from employees. Justice Department documents show that only the Drug Enforcement Administration requires applicants to undergo polygraph examinations and psychological assessments. The U.S. Marshals Service, the agency that hunts down fugitives, requires neither. Federal prison guards also don’t have to sit through either test. The FBI and ATF ask for just polygraphs.

The Federal Managers Association is pushing Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to implement a standard screening process across all law enforcement agencies the Justice Department controls. 

“All selected applicants undergo standardized background checks for employment suitability and security clearances where required,” a Justice Department spokesman wrote in a statement when asked why one standard psychological assessment isn’t used within its federal law enforcement agencies. 

Referring to all federal law enforcement agencies, Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director of counterintelligence for the FBI who is a contributor to NBC News, said, “We imbue our agents and officers with the immense responsibility they have, and the fact that many of them are engaged in national security work should merit the use of psychological assessment tools.”

Current and former federal officials said federal law enforcement agencies rely heavily on applicants’ background checks, which they argue are thorough enough to flag an applicant with psychological issues. The checks, which can take months, often involve investigators’ flying around the country, or even to foreign countries, to interview potential agents’ former neighbors, classmates and work colleagues. Prospective hires are asked to share their financial and medical records and disclose whether they are on psychiatric medication and why.

“Agent applicants go through a panel interview, polygraph exam, medical exam, drug test, and a rigorous background investigation before onboarding,” ATF spokeswoman April Langwell said.

A DEA spokesperson pointed to the agency’s application requirements that say a candidate needs to complete both a polygraph examination and a psychological assessment. 

The FBI and the Marshals Service didn’t immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.

The norm in big city policing 

There is no federal data that would show whether the lack of testing has any effect on the behavior of federal law enforcement agents. Unlike major police departments that release timely data about police-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents, the FBI, ATF, the DEA and the Marshals Service don’t. Federal agencies also don’t routinely disclose whether agents have been disciplined or fired for abusive behavior. 

More than 90 percent of local law enforcement agencies report a psychological evaluation requirement for their applicants, according to Justice Department data. And about 45 percent say they ask potential hires to sit through polygraph exams. Experts say that while psychological screenings are ubiquitous in policing, thoroughness varies

Smaller departments sometimes administer tests online, often without separate meetings with psychologists, which is a practice big city police chiefs shun. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s largest organization for department heads, issued a best practices playbook for hiring police in 2020 and detailed the use of in-person psychological assessments.

Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Chief Erika Shields, a vocal critic of federal law enforcement tactics, pulled her officers off federal task forces in 2019, when she ran the Atlanta Police Department, citing issues with transparency and oversight. Shields called the lack of psychological testing in federal law enforcement “alarming.”

Shields pointed out that police departments in Louisville and Atlanta conduct psychological testing of their applicants and that, similar to the feds, they do extensive background investigations that can include financial reviews and trips to interview former neighbors and colleagues.

“To put into perspective how valuable this feedback is from psychologists, both at Louisville and APD, if a psychologist says, ‘I’m not recommending,’ that was an automatic disqualifier,” Shields said. “They’re going to be able to identify behaviors that may be problematic down the road. And so you’re bypassing this at federal agencies that are working on the front line? I am just at a loss to explain why.”

Law enforcement experts said the Justice Department’s hiring standards for its agents represent a “double standard” for police reform. Since the 1990s, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has forced dozens of police departments to change their policies using court-ordered reform plans. Louisville police are under federal review.

An NBC News analysis of reform plans, called consent decrees, found that the Justice Department told police in Baltimore, Cleveland and New Orleans to have their applicants undergo psychological screenings.

LaGrange, Georgia, Police Chief Louis Dekmar, a former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said it’s ironic that the agencies falling under the Justice Department responsible for overseeing police reform don’t have a standard practice of pre-employment psychological evaluations.

“The standards, in many instances, are significantly higher at the local, county and state level than in some federal law enforcement agencies,” Dekmar said.

Matthew Guller, a veteran police psychologist and managing partner at the Institute for Forensic Psychology, a firm that does psychological assessments for about 600 police departments in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere, walked NBC News through his weekslong examination process.

Potential police recruits meet with him, or a member of his team, for a “battery of tests,” which often include the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or a similar written assessment. Applicants then return for sit-down interviews in which Guller, or a colleague, asks about certain responses and inquires about findings from background investigations.

If a potential hire’s responses concern Guller, he asks the police department to dig even further into the person’s background. Background investigators of the sort the federal agencies rely on, Guller said, “don’t have the training to see the patterns of risk-taking behaviors, impulsivity or emotional stress tolerance.” He stressed that federal law enforcement shouldn’t rely on background checks or polygraphs without psychological experts. 

“They are missing things,” Guller said.