Police Chief’s Polygraph Targets Racist Applicants

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Sullivan, who has taken the lie detector test himself, said he’s hoping to establish a professional police department that can eventually provide 24-hour service seven days a week. Right now, he doesn’t have the staff to police the town around the clock and leaves those duties up to the sheriff’s office. He’s already hired two police officers, both of whom have passed the polygraph, and he wants to add more. The department’s budget is about $250,000 this fiscal year, Sullivan said, and the chief makes $41,000.

Bob Peters, a spokesman for the American Polygraph Association, said asking about factual matters is a better approach than using subjective questions about prejudice or racism. He says a polygraph can’t accurately predict whether someone is racist.

“There might be people whom I might think have racist attitudes but they might not think so,” said Peters, whose association has established best practices for use of the polygraph.

Peters says the new chief is using the best approach, and some voters are applauding him.

“I am very pleased with Chief Sullivan and the effort he is making to create a sound and secure police department for Coopertown,” said Valorie Buck, chairwoman of the Coopertown Community Development Committee.

Malik Aziz, national chairman of the National Black Police Association, said the best way to keep bigots from being cops is through extensive background checks.

It’s not unusual for police departments to use polygraphs on people before letting them join the force. Police applicants can be asked about past drug use or whether they have been involved in criminal activity.

“I haven’t heard of any agency using a polygraph specifically geared toward eliminating racists from the application process,” he said.

Sullivan says he’s also using background checks to probe the racism issue.

The Metropolitan Nashville Police Department requires job candidates to undergo a voice stress test during the interviewing process, department spokeswoman Kristin Mumford said. Would-be officers are asked about bias during the test.

Voice stress tests are similar to polygraph tests, but instead of measuring heart rate and blood pressure, they detect changes in an applicant’s voice pattern.

The department, she said, also uses an extensive background check and psychologically evaluates its job candidates.

“Polygraphs in and of themselves have a lot of problems,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said.

Still, Weinberg commended the chief for the effort to bar racist applicants. But she thinks the best way for police departments to be accountable is by making sure citizens have their complaints of unfair treatment investigated.

Carolyn Murray, a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside, supports other types of testing to detect bias, such as ones that use images of different racial groups and gauge reaction time when they are described as either “good” or “bad.” Still, she applauded Sullivan’s approach.

“If he’s making this effort, he’s making the biggest effort I’ve seen to date,” Murray said. “You’re not going to get everybody, but you will be able to stop a few people who would have been able to do a lot of damage to citizens.”

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