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Couch is detour on road to policing

SANDY — They are physically strong. Many of them are very athletic. But it takes more than brawn to be a member of Utah's men and women in blue. Before they can wear a badge, applicants must prove they also have what it takes mentally to be a cop.

More than a dozen men and women hoping to become part of the Sandy Police Department were given a psychological screening last week. It's a policy that many police agencies in Utah and the nation have adopted. And for some, the mental exam is tougher than the physical exam.

The tests, with written and oral questions, are administered by Rand Lenhart.

For the past 13 years, Lenhart, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, has interviewed more than 30,000 police, firefighter and dispatcher applicants for 500 departments around the nation, including Sandy, Salt Lake City and a number of other Utah agencies.

Each applicant must answer questionnaires that ask very specific and personal questions, such as: Do you beat your spouse? When was your last fight? Do you drink and drive?

Lenhart said he is amazed at what people tell him. In some of his more extreme cases, applicants have admitted stealing from their last employers. One man had six previous criminal convictions, including one for aggravated assault. Another applicant admitted striking his wife with a closed fist just a week earlier.

One applicant even admitted to smoking pot just before showing up for his psychological exam in order to "relax."

These applicants were all rejected. In fact, Lenhart will typically reject half of the applicants wanting to work for Sandy police. For Salt Lake City police, he commonly rejects up to three-fourths of the applicants.

Not every applicant is suited for every police department. For example, an applicant who is rejected by Sandy police may be hired by Salt Lake police, Lenhart said. A lot of that is determined by the kinds of calls that are most frequent in a department.

Police administrators know it's rare to find applicants who have never done anything wrong in their lives.

It's nearly impossible to find an applicant who hasn't at one time experimented with alcohol or drugs, said Sandy Police Lt. Kevin Thacker. In what he called a sign of the changing times, nearly 90 percent of today's applicants have admitted to alcohol or drug use. Some have admitted to using hard drugs.

Police officers are held to a higher standard in the public's eye, so Lenhart doesn't believe it's unfair to dig into an applicant's personal life.

"You're not applying at 7-Eleven," he said.

As Lenhart questions applicants, he fills out a psychological suitability evaluation form. He judges whether an applicant is good at things such as problem-solving, following orders and working with others. Applicants are given grades on characteristics such as integrity, assertiveness and emotional self-control.

If an applicant admits to something illegal, such as stealing, Lenhart will ask how often it happens, how recently it happened and how severe the crime was.

"Character is something built into someone. You can't train it out of them," he said.

For Sandy police, honesty and integrity are very important categories. If applicants don't score well in those areas, they likely will not be hired. Even if an applicant has good policing skills, Thacker said his department does not want someone who is rude, obnoxious or condescending.

While judging personalities is not an exact science, it is extremely rare when Lenhart doesn't accurately pin an applicant's personality.

But Lenhart admits that despite the screening, he never knows what a person will be like until after they are hired.

"What could be more difficult than predicting human behavior?" he asked.