Police push to polygraph hires

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein

Anyone interested in wearing a police badge in Oregon could soon be asked to sit through a lie-detector test and face questions like these:

Have you used drugs? Have you stolen from an employer? Have you committed a felony? Did you answer honestly about why you left your last job?

Oregon police chiefs are pushing to change state law this year to allow law enforcement agencies to administer polygraph tests to help screen out bad apples during hiring.

Portland Chief Rosie Sizer and Mayor Tom Potter, a former city police chief, are strong proponents of the change, and the city of Portland helped draft legislation. But the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon pledges to fight it.

Oregon has long forbidden the practice, while the states that border it –Washington, California and Idaho –allow it in police hiring. Washington, in fact, now mandates that all law enforcement agencies use the test for hiring.

The proposed legislation would carve out an exception to Oregon’s law that now makes it an “unlawful employment practice” for any employer to subject, directly or indirectly, any employee or prospective employee to a polygraph.

The exception would apply to public safety officers, allowing a polygraph test to be used only for pre-employment screening. Failing the polygraph test could not be the sole basis for refusing or denying employment.

The bill being drafted by the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police wouldn’t go as far as Washington state, which in 2005 mandated that all police or reserve officers pass a polygraph test before being certified as an officer.

“It’s not so much that people take the polygraph and are found to be lying. That’s a very rare occurrence,” said Don Pierce, a former chief from Bellingham, Wash., and Boise who now is executive director of Washington’s Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “When people are sitting facing the polygraph they tell the truth, so we save a lot of time in terms of discovering behaviors that are disqualifying.”

The ACLU contends the polygraph is a faulty test.

“Oregon has long prohibited their use in employment because lie detectors are inherently unreliable,” said David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon ACLU.

“There are people who fail lie detector tests who are innocent, and there are people who are guilty that pass them,” Fidanque said. “It’s a bad idea. There’s no substitute for an employer doing their homework and checking the references. If that can be taken care of in the private sector, I don’t see why it can’t occur in the public sector.”

Under Oregon’s proposal, law enforcement agencies would have the option of using the polygraph.

Portland Officer Kurt Nelson, a former background investigator, said he’s concerned that agencies will use the polygraph exam to short-circuit an in-depth background review. “I don’t think it’s a panacea for whatever they’re trying to suggest it’s going to cure,” Nelson said.

Portland does extensive background checks on police applicants, but Chief Sizer expects some applicants to shy away from filling out applications if the polygraph test becomes part of the hiring process. “What we think it will do is speed up our background process because you get more information upfront,” she said.

Portland Assistant Chief Brian Martinek knows what it’s like to sit on both sides of a polygraph test, having sat for a polygraph when he was hired as a deputy chief in Vancouver.

“I had to do it, and it’s no fun. They’re very stressful, whether you’re trying to hide something or not,” Martinek said. “But to not have it is a mistake. The fact is we have people who pass the backgrounds now who shouldn’t.”

Portland’s Mental Health/Public Safety Panel, set up by the mayor in November after the death in police custody of James P. Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old schizophrenic, recently recommended the use of the lie detector tests for screening police recruits.

Potter said he embraces anything to improve how police respond to people with mental illness, which is becoming an increasingly frequent encounter for officers. Potter said polygraph tests may help pinpoint concerns that remain hidden in the regular application process, and “will be helpful to screen people out who may not be able to handle the stress on the street or anywhere else.”

Some police executives worry that the polygraphs might make it even more difficult to find qualified candidates at a time when agencies struggle to fill vacancies.

Robert King, president of the Portland Police Association, said the union is still reviewing the issue.

Oregon Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, already submitted a similar bill on behalf of Medford’s former police chief, Ray Shipley. Shipley came from California and recounted to Esquivel how one officer in his old department was not hired because a polygraph test turned up that he’d shoplifted while on duty at his previous policing job.

“Law enforcement people have to be the icon of your community, and you want people who are very ethically sound and do the right thing and don’t commit crimes,” Esquivel said.

Chief Robert M. Lehner took over the helm of the Eugene Police Department three years ago as two Eugene officers were indicted and sent to prison for their parts in a sex scandal. Both officers sexually assaulted multiple women over a period of years, preying on women with drug and alcohol problems and silencing them with the threat of arrest. Investigations showed they had criminal histories, including burglary, drug and theft offenses, before they were hired, Lehner said.

Outside consultants reviewed Eugene’s hiring, training and recruitment processes when Lehner took over. They noted that Oregon was one of the few states that prohibited polygraphs for police applicants, and they recommended changing the law.

David Corey, a police psychologist who does psychological screening and fitness-for-duty exams for many police agencies in the Portland area and Washington state, says polygraph tests help detect deception, spur “truth-telling” by applicants, and can be a useful tool when a background investigator finds discrepancies in an applicant’s personal history.

Corey cited a study by Johnson-Roberts Associates, of Oakland, Calif., which publishes a life history questionnaire for prospective public safety employees. In states where police applicants are administered a pre-job polygraph, applicants will disclose past drug use more often than applicants in states where polygraphs are prohibited, the study found.

Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto favors the polygraph, saying he was concerned that psychological exams haven’t been successful in catching sexual deviancies.

“Every tool available to us at the front end of the career to find the best applicants, we owe the public,” he said. “I don’t know how you could argue against it.”