Police Psychology in the Federal Government

Neil S. Hibler, FAClinP

Long-established ambitions can lead to great satisfaction. Mine began in elementary school with a fascination with crime solving. My twin and several neighborhood friends formed the typical “no girls allowed” tree house club we called the “Junior Detectives of America.” We thought everything about police work was cool, spending the summer between the fifth and sixth grades looking for lost pets and trying to solve other local mysteries.

When of age, we joined the Police Athletic League Rifle Team, and in time practiced with the police pistol team. With some new friends who shared our interests, we trained in first aid and rescue, establishing a “junior” auxiliary to the local ambulance corps. We reveled in the excitement of responding to emergencies. For a teen, it was empowering to have responsibilities that truly made a difference. Not to mention that it was really cool to occasionally be taken out of high school classes by a police officer with a waiting cruiser, speeding away with lights and siren to the scene of a fire or wreck. Talk about reinforcement.

In college I proudly enrolled in Air Force ROTC, but had no idea where that would lead. I was a psychology major, permitted to obtain a masters degree prior to entering active duty. I studied school psychology, which was qualifying for assignment as an Air Force Psychologist. My graduation present was a letter informing me that the qualifying standards had just changed and now required a doctorate. I had to select another military career option and was asked, would I be interested in being a Special Agent of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations?

Following training I was assigned as a Special Investigations and Counterintelligence Officer to the Air Force OSI office in New York City. Later, I was reassigned to the Special Investigations Academy in Washington, D.C., where I instructed in a variety of topics, including interviewing and interrogating, due to my psychology background. But I wanted to do more. The field of police psychology was just emerging in 1973 and my interests were fired by behavioral science techniques such as forensic hypnosis, psychological autopsies and profiling. My efforts to practice in these areas were, however, blocked by the AF Surgeon General’s Office, properly declaring that these were “psychological” methods and by military standards, I wasn’t qualified. My agency fixed that, sponsoring a fellowship for doctoral study that I was the first to occupy, resulting in my being the first police psychologist in the federal government.

More good luck. I studied under Charlie Spielberger, who some readers may not know was an officer in the Navy Reserve. I am indebted for his commitment to my goal in applying psychological science to military law enforcement. My master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation exposed the misuse of voice stress analysis for lie detection. Voice analysis is a process that now thirty years later is enjoying resurgence in the marketplace, despite the absence to date of any form of scientific validation.

Of the many applications of psychology to military, law enforcement and forensic arenas, several stand out for me due to their inherently interesting nature as well as the need for credible study. One, which has been a particular honor, regards espionage. In 1983, I participated in a conference at the CIA that was intended to reframe the counterintelligence field. The topic was personnel security; the intent was to start from square one, asking the hard questions, to include why espionage occurred, and how to investigate and stop it. The conference confirmed that the intelligence community had as many different conceptions of this crime as there were agencies to pursue it. The direction for investigation and security came from intelligence officers and agents for whom espionage was anathema. With few exceptions, the keepers of our national security could not comprehend how trusted employees could betray their nation. There was no understanding of the mindset from which espionage grew, nor of influences that promoted or deterred such activity. I concluded that there had been no effective effort to coordinate or scheme to share information, analyze patterns, trends and factors that might explain what was considered to be an enigma.

I proposed research to conduct a comprehensive study of espionage, incorporating multidisciplinary experts in the review of every case in which the subject was alive and willing to speak to researchers. Using a model pioneered by the FBI, we set forth to interview and psychologically assess espionage subjects and to collect corroborative information from those who knew them at the time of their crimes. By the time I retired from the government, I was working full time directing this effort, which has resulted in many innovations in countering espionage, to include the effective profiling of suspects. This important work continues today, applying research standards to understanding and reducing risk to national security.

This is just one of a number of areas where psychologists in the government are making important contributions. Since leaving military service, I have established a network of police psychologists to serve federal law enforcement agencies. Our team covers all 50 States and US Territories, providing pre-employment selection screening, fitness for duty evaluations, crisis intervention, direct investigative/operational support, team building, training and other services, when and wherever the need.

Like an old firedog, when there is an emergency, I still see opportunity and adventure. I never figured out which I liked better, being a cop or a psychologist; this is the best of both.

Readers interested in military psychology should know that all branches of the armed forces have clinical and industrial/organizational psychologists. APA Division 19 (Military Psychology) is an excellent resource. APA Division 18 (Psychology in Public Service), Police Psychology Section, provides opportunities for networking with colleagues who apply psychological science to law enforcement.

(Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of Psychological Science Agenda,
the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)