Police Psychology Careers

In police psychology, or, as it’s correctly termed, “police and public safety psychology,” psychology professionals assist police officers and public safety officials in doing their jobs, treating the physical and mental health of officers, victims, witnesses, public safety personnel, family members of police officers, and others. These professionals also help ensure that police departments and officers adhere to strict codes of ethics, are qualified and competent, and have the assistance they need to help keep the public safe.

Overview of Police Psychology: What Is Police Psychology?

Police officers and law enforcement staff are routinely exposed to dangerous situations that threaten their own personal safety, working in an environment that has a variety of negative mental health effects, not only on the officers and staff, but also on their families. Moreover, police officers spend their days in frequent encounters with some of the most violent members of society: the mentally ill, drug addicts, and criminals, who are more likely to need mental health services. Additionally, because policing is such a dangerous career, officers and staff are heavily screened before they receive the gun and badge that go with the job.

This is where psychology comes in. At its most basic, police psychology is the use of psychological principles in situations that involve public safety officials and police officers. According to the Doe Report, “Police psychology is the application of behavioral science and mental health principles to the concerns of police officers, their families, the department, and the community. Police psychologists perform a wide range of functions, which can be divided into several broad categories.”

Those categories include clinical and mental health services, including stress debriefings after critical incidents, trauma interventions after shootings, individual and family therapy, substance-abuse counseling, and department-wide stress management. Operational assistance and support services may be necessary for extreme circumstances and specialized cases, such as crisis negotiation, hostage situations, criminal profiling, investigation, undercover and special assignments, and victim intervention.

Police psychologists also play an administrative role in that they help human resources departments determine which applicants might make the best officers, liaise between the police and the public, provide expert testimony, and supply leadership and training. In every role, a police psychologist’s job is to use psychological principles to make the work easier and provide clarity to every situation.

What Does a Police Psychologist Do?

A police psychologist performs a range of duties; however, every police psychologist’s primary purpose is to shed light on the inner workings of the human mind in situations when it is not apparent. They apply psychological principles when working with people inside and outside police departments, gather evidence and data to inform recommendations, clarify witness testimonies, advise officers during interrogations, and, in general, offer insight into the hidden compartments of the human brain when called upon to do so.

To perform their jobs at an optimal level, police psychologists need a variety of specialized skills and knowledge, including:

  • Thorough grasp of basic psychological principles
  • Understanding of the functions of police departments and public safety administrations
  • Working conditions and stressors unique to law enforcement careers
  • Normal and pathological responses to stress and trauma
  • Confidentiality of officers, victims, witnesses, and others
  • Discretion with sensitive information and identities
  • Excellent observation and analytical skills
  • Patience and compassion without judgment, especially when dealing with criminals or situations of misconduct
  • Good communication skills, both oral and written
  • A healthy dose of skepticism, which is necessary when working with those who are not always being completely honest
  • A strong sense of ethics and morality
  • Good organization and record-keeping skills
  • Timeliness — necessary to complete continuing education hours and licensing and certification requirements

Police Psychology Roles: Public Safety & Law Enforcement

Police psychologists have a wide range of duties, but they’re most commonly hired to perform one of four tasks: assessments, fitness for duty evaluations, clinical interventions, and operational support.

Police psychologists have been used for decades to screen candidates who apply for jobs as police or public safety officers. Obviously, police departments must apply very high standards when hiring new personnel, but in actual practice, this is easier said than done. Since the mid-20th century, law enforcement departments have availed themselves of psychologists to assess the suitability of potential candidates. Police psychologists recommend those candidates who appear to be a satisfactory psychological match and rule out those who are inappropriate – or who may even be dangerous in the position.

Evaluations for fitness for duty take place in a wide range of workplace settings, such as construction or medicine, but in no situation are these evaluations more important than in law enforcement. Officers who take time off, suffer a physical or mental setback, or who perform poorly must be examined to determine whether they are able to resume their duties. Sometimes, they are not mentally or physically sound, possibly because they are incapable of going back to work after a distressing incident, or because they are experiencing difficulties in another area of their lives that compromises their ability to behave safely and professionally.

Police psychologists also are frequently called in for clinical interventions. Because traumatizing events are much more likely to occur in police work than in other jobs, police psychologists stay busy, offering short-term behavioral treatments to help traumatized police officers cope with their experiences. They also may intervene to help shell-shocked victims or vulnerable witnesses assist in investigations, and they frequently assist family members of both officers and victims in learning how to respond to stressors in a healthy manner.

Lastly, police psychologists are called upon to provide operational support. For instance, they often assist with the paperwork involved in the staffing, interviewing, hiring, evaluating, and training process of law enforcement officers.

Police Psychology Salary & Employment Outlook

Under the broad umbrella term of “psychologist,” the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that police psychologists can expect to earn an average of $75,230 per year, or $36.17 per hour. Job prospects for police psychologists are extremely positive, with psychology jobs of all kinds projected to grow 19 percent between 2014 and 2024.

While many police psychology positions are classified as clinical, others fall into the fields of experimental, social, or industrial-organizational psychology. Working outside a clinical role typically means a higher average salary, according to the BLS, with an average of $94,650 a year.

Specific jobs also may generate higher salaries. For instance, some police psychology job postings stipulate a beginning salary of $78,728–$124,634 a year, which indicates that the longer a professional practices in the field and the more qualifications earned, the more he or she can make.

Police Psychology Jobs & Job Description

Typically, police psychologists are employed by police departments or other public safety agencies, but state and federal government agencies also may utilize their services. Alternatively, police psychologists may go into private practice or consulting, either as lone practitioners or alongside other police psychologists.

While day-to-day duties vary widely, a police psychologist’s primary role is to work with police officers, public safety staff, families, victims, witnesses, members of the legal and judicial system, and others involved in or affected by law enforcement. Typical duties on any given day may include:

  • Training officers in basic psychology
  • Conducting interventions after a crisis
  • Providing counseling for shock, trauma, grief, and bereavement
  • Offering cognitive behavioral therapy to officers, staff, witnesses, and more
  • Helping officers manage stress, especially in undercover situations
  • Diagnosing and treating mental health disorders
  • Providing wellness coaching
  • Forming peer support teams
  • Preparing officers for the rigors of the field
  • Assessing candidates for hire
  • Assisting with crisis or hostage negotiations
  • Crafting criminal profiles
  • Performing “psychological autopsies,” in which the police psychologist formulates a profile of a suicide victim
  • Predicting the outcomes of various situations and therapeutic approaches

This list is incomplete, but it indicates the breadth of typical situations a typical police psychologist may encounter over the course of a single day, week, or month.

Police Psychology Degrees & Education

While a doctoral degree is not required to work in the field of police psychology, you cannot practice as a police psychologist without a Ph.D. The doctoral degree signifies that the applicant has undertaken extensive training in both psychological principles and police work. The doctoral program must be accredited by the American Psychological Association, and at least 100 hours of education must be earned that are directly related to police and public safety psychology.

Candidates are required to complete a post-doctoral internship or fellowship in police psychology, as well as one to two years of supervised training by a practicing police psychologist, for a total of 3,000 hours of direct work experience in a police psychology setting.

Most universities do not offer a degree in police psychology, which means that many students first acquire both an undergraduate and graduate degree in psychology to provide a sound background in the field. A master’s degree in fields such as applied criminology, forensic psychology, or mental health counseling, for instance, allows the student to secure entry into a reputable doctoral program, which also may include studies in clinical psychology or forensic psychology. Students who wish to make police psychology their career path should choose a degree program with a focus on law enforcement.

Police Psychologist Licensing & Certification

The rules for police psychologist licensure are very strict. While no specific license to practice as a police psychologist is required, those who wish to use the title “psychologist” in any state must first earn a master’s degree, after which they can apply for a license. Licensure requires successful completion of an exam administered by the applicable state’s licensing board. All U.S. states are governed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, and licensure requires passing the Examination for the Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). The EPPP is a 225-question exam that tests students on the foundational principles of psychology, behavior, assessment, diagnosis, and other core subjects.

After passing this test and earning a license, the candidate can apply for a doctoral program, or, if he or she has already completed the program, for board certification in Police & Public Safety Psychology, also offered by the American Board of Professional Psychology. To receive certification, the candidate must graduate from the Ph.D. program and complete the supervised internship.

Read more about psychologist license requirements.

Police Psychology Organizations of Interest