The protocol is less rigorous than best practices nationally and the evaluator lacked the proper license. Police leaders are moving to replace him for another reason: They believe he screened out too many minority candidates.
December 14, 2017
The circumstances that led to the death of Justine Damond Ruszczyk this past summer in Minneapolis left people wondering what went through the mind of the police officer who shot her.
Mohamed Noor, who had been on the force less than two years, shot Ruszczyk as she approached his squad car. She had called 911 twice that night to report what she thought was an assault. Noor's partner, according to a search warrant, became startled by a loud sound caused by someone — presumably Ruszczyk — slapping the vehicle with their hand just before the shooting.
Noor has refused to say publicly why he pulled the trigger.
The president of the Minneapolis City Council quickly called for better psychological testing of police officers. And the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is investigating the shooting, obtained a search warrant to review the department's psychological assessments of Noor and his partner, an unusual move.
Like most police departments in the United States, Minneapolis requires job applicants to go through a psychological screening before they're hired.
There is no way to know whether Noor's psychological makeup played a role in the shooting, or if so, whether any screening could have detected such a tendency. But the screening protocol the city put Noor and 200 other officers through during the past five years is less extensive than the battery of tests used in comparable cities. It's also less rigorous than national best practices and the screenings Minneapolis administered for more than a decade before.
Starting in 2012, the city eliminated four of the five psychological tests used to screen applicants for its police academy. Those tests — at least one of which the department had used since at least the mid-1990s — were dropped even though a federally funded study conducted in the Minneapolis Police Department showed some were effective at identifying problem officers.
Over the past three years, at least 2,875 Americans have been killed by police. Those shootings have sparked protests around the country and ignited a national debate about when police should fire their weapons. Research shows that some psychological tests can detect which officers are mentally equipped for the responsibility of making life-and-death decisions. And yet for two decades, Minneapolis has taken an inconsistent approach to the psychological screening process, frequently changing evaluators and leaving it up to them to decide which tests to administer.
It's even unclear after interviews with the police chief and his predecessor who is ultimately accountable for the decisions the city has made. In a 2006 deposition, a Minneapolis Police Department official said he wasn't sure how to answer when he was asked who had the authority to hire psychological evaluators. "You never know with the city," an attorney for Minneapolis quipped.
Dr. Gary Fischler
Dr. Michael Campion
Dr. John Fennig
Dr. Thomas Gratzer
As a result of the dysfunction, Minneapolis puts itself at risk of bestowing badges and guns on officers who are psychologically ill-suited to their jobs at a time when trust in police is already at historic lows.
For the past five years the city has relied on Dr. Thomas Gratzer, a psychiatrist who took over the screenings in 2012 and reduced the tests from five to one. Gratzer's curriculum vitae shows no experience in the specialized field of law enforcement psychology, yet he has had final say on a potential police officer's fitness for duty.
Moreover, the very choice of using a psychiatrist by the city appears to violate state regulations, which require a licensed psychologist to approve cops for duty. Nationally, it is highly unusual for psychiatrists to conduct these sorts of screenings because the types of assessments involved aren't generally part of their scope of practice, which most often is focused on diagnosing mental illness and prescribing medication.
Gratzer, who works for a company called EvaluMed, brought something else new to the city in 2012 — higher cost. His company charged the city $1,300 per screening, two to three times the amount Minneapolis had paid previous mental health evaluators.
Minneapolis is now poised to replace Gratzer, but not because of the doctor's testing protocol, credential or high cost. Police leaders appeared unaware of that information until told by a reporter. Instead, they said, they decided to search for a new mental health evaluator because Gratzer screened out a larger percentage of minority applicants, which alarmed them.
Ironically Gratzer, who did not respond to four interview requests, came into the job after the city fired two of his predecessors over concerns they rejected too many minority candidates.
The result is that over the years the Minneapolis Police Department has been forced to turn to a series of mental health evaluators with little or no experience in screening aspiring cops. And indeed, as it searches today for Gratzer's replacement, the city has offered the job to a psychologist who has never done this type of work before.
More than 90 percent of U.S. police departments require job applicants to pass a psychological evaluation, according to a study published in 2003. In 38 states, including Minnesota, it's a legal requirement. But like most of those states, Minnesota allows local departments to decide the rigor of those screenings.
California is an exception. The commission that licenses police there created a 200-page manual that is widely regarded as a set of best practices by psychologists across the country who specialize in the evaluation of aspiring cops. Those standards call for at least two written tests, each measuring different aspects of an applicant's personality.
"There's no one silver bullet," said Mike Roberts, a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who helped develop California's standards. "It's better to have two tests than one. Each of them adds something to the other. So, the best solution is to use both of them."
One test is designed to weed out candidates who have unstable mental tendencies. The other is designed to identify applicants who would be a good fit for police work. With only one test, Roberts said, there's risk the screening could miss characteristics that would indicate that an officer shouldn't carry a badge and gun.
The candidate could be "nervous, jumpy, twitchy, afraid of the dark, afraid of whatever. They're really not a person cut out for this kind of work," Roberts said. "You want to find someone who not only is stable — they're not crazy — but they're suitable. They have the traits and characteristics that are necessary to perform safely and effectively as a street cop."
For the past five years, Minneapolis has administered only one test, the MMPI-II-RF, which is focused on the applicant's mental stability. The city hasn't included any formal testing of whether candidates are psychologically suitable.
"Abnormal range" personality tests like the MMPI-II-RF, focus on traits that border on pathological, including anxiety, hostility and rebelliousness. By contrast, "normal range" tests, such as the California Personality Inventory, are designed to measure positive traits such as sociability, conscientiousness and integrity.
Recent research shows that using both tests together is more effective at identifying problem officers than using either test in isolation. APM Reports surveyed seven cities similar to Minneapolis, including St. Paul, Seattle, Miami and Denver. Minneapolis was the only city relying on a single test.
In fact most of the cities administered between three and six assessments, looking at characteristics such as intelligence, problem-solving, work style and anger management.
Minneapolis even stands as an outlier compared to other Minnesota police departments. The majority of police officers licensed in Minnesota during the past 18 months went through a similarly extensive battery of tests, according to a review of nearly 1,000 licensing records maintained by the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
The records show most officers went through one of three psychological evaluation firms that all adhere to national best practices.
Up until 2012, Minneapolis put applicants through as many as five tests. And there is evidence to show they were effective. A 2004 study, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, found that Minneapolis officers who were flagged as a concern during their psychological assessments were three times more likely to engage in misconduct on the force.
The study examined the disciplinary records of 34 officers Minneapolis hired despite receiving a "marginal" rating during their psychological screenings. Almost a quarter of them were disciplined for misconduct during the years that followed, compared to less than 8 percent of officers who received a positive psychological recommendation.
Looking only for mental health issues
The California Personality Inventory — among the tests that had predicted future problems in Minneapolis — was one of the tests eliminated in 2012. Studies in other departments have found that officers who scored poorly on the CPI were later deemed psychologically unsuited to be cops by their supervisors.
Dr. Marvin Logel, the psychologist who administered the MMPI for Gratzer, said their goal with the test was to screen out candidates who showed worrisome mental or emotional issues. It wasn't to identify candidates who had the ideal psychological makeup for the work. "My guess is that they're screened enough before they get to us," Logel said. "They've already been offered the job."
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, police departments can only require candidates to undergo a full psychological evaluation after giving them a conditional job offer. In Minneapolis, candidates must pass a series of interviews, physical agility challenges and a background check before that happens, but no formal assessments of their personality, character or intelligence.
It's difficult to accurately compare the discipline and complaints against the 200 officers that Gratzer recommended with some 700 other Minneapolis police officers who served alongside them. The composition of the police force is constantly in flux, with Gratzer-approved officers accounting for a small but growing share of the department.
Noor, however, has been the subject of four complaints during his less than two years at MPD and one lawsuit. One complaint was closed without discipline. Three others remain open. While complaints against cops are common, relatively few officers have been the subject of that many in such a short time period. Fewer than 40 of the city's more than 800 officers have received four or more complaints since 2015, according to data maintained by its Office of Police Conduct Review.
Just days after Noor shot and killed Ruszcyk, Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the police department should "look really closely at our procedures, training and recruitment." Johnson added: "One of the things I've always been interested in is better psychological testing."
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension filed an unusual search warrant as part of its investigation, requesting access to "medical files that contain pre-employment psychological exams, the unredacted personnel files, and the pre-employment background investigations" of Noor and his partner.
No such records or similar warrants appeared in the bureau's publicly released investigative files for other recent high-profile shootings by police, such as the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark or the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile.
Missing the proper credential
Although Logel, the psychologist, administered the one written exam, Gratzer conducted the oral interview with job applicants and made the recommendation on whether Minneapolis should hire them.
Minnesota police licensing rules require a "licensed psychologist" to interview aspiring cops to determine that they're "free from any emotional or mental condition which might adversely affect the performance of peace officer duties."
By putting that decision in the hands of a psychiatrist, Minneapolis appears to have violated that rule, said Nate Gove, executive director of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board. "We certainly want to make sure that people are complying with our rules," he said. "That doesn't mean that all the people that got hired are bad people."
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he had no concerns about any of the officers Gratzer had approved over the past few years. Going forward, though, he pledged to make sure the city followed state regulations requiring a psychologist to give officers the green light. He wouldn't say that the city has already decided to stop referring candidates to Gratzer, because the contract for his replacement hasn't been made final.
APM Reports reviewed all the license applications the Minnesota POST board received over an 18-month period — more than 900. The form provides a space where the police chief or sheriff is supposed to list the name of the licensed psychologist who recommended hiring the officer.
While Gratzer was by far the most prolific non-psychologist listed, he was hardly the only one. Officers were listed as being approved by a psychiatric nurse practitioner, a licensed professional clinical counselor, a licensed graduate social worker and a marriage and family therapist.
Some police departments simply left the line blank where they were supposed to write the name of the approving psychologist. Others used an old version of the form that provided no space for that information. Altogether, 14 percent of the license applications either didn't list a licensed psychologist, or listed someone who wasn't one.
The POST board approved all the licenses, in spite of easily identifiable deficiencies, showing it has exercised little oversight or enforcement of the requirement.
In response to inquiries from APM Reports, Gove launched a review of board processes and apparent rule violations. The police chiefs who incorrectly attested their officers had been approved by licensed psychologists, including former Minneapolis chief Janee Harteau, could come under scrutiny.
In an interview, Harteau said she was unaware of how Gratzer was hired in 2012, a few months before she took over as chief. "That is one of those things that unless you ask questions, and you continue to just operate on the status quo, nobody knows the why," she said. "They just keep doing it because we've always done it that way."
How Gratzer got hired
While some states allow psychiatrists to approve officers for duty, it is rare for police departments to use them, said Dr. David Corey, a police psychologist in Oregon who has conducted extensive research in the field.
"It used to be that psychiatrists were engaged in a broad range of treatment modalities. Today it is almost exclusively dispensing medication," Corey said.
All of the seven Minneapolis peer cities APM Reports surveyed use psychologists. No other Minnesota city is relying on a psychiatrist, either, according to POST board records.
Gratzer is a forensic psychiatrist, meaning he specializes in using psychiatry to answer legal questions, such as whether a defendant is competent to stand trial. He has testified as an expert witness in numerous cases in Minnesota and surrounding states.
He received his undergraduate and medical education at the University of Manitoba in Canada, and came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s. He worked briefly in Chicago before moving to Minnesota, taking a job at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, where he worked until 2002. He has privileges at several area hospitals and teaches at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic.
Gratzer's published research focuses on the treatment of sex offenders, the diagnosis of Munchausen Syndrome, and the right to refuse mental health treatment under Canadian law.
Minneapolis is the only law enforcement agency in Minnesota that has relied on Gratzer's services to screen applicants for police jobs in the last year and a half, according to Minnesota POST board records.
Minneapolis first began referring officers to Gratzer in 2012. The city chose him without a formal bidding process because he was part of a network of physicians that was included in its contract with Alpha Review, a company the city uses to process workers' compensation claims.
Going through the third-party vendor was an unorthodox approach to handling the screenings that had long been championed by the city's risk management and claims director. Ellen Velasco-Thompson had argued for years that it would make billing easier, give the city more choices and leave the vetting of providers up to an outside company.
"They would be professionally screened, deemed they are qualified in their area of expertise and set fees would be negotiated," Velasco-Thomson wrote in a 2006 email to leaders in the police and human resources department. "Quality & cost issues are screened and billing is made much easier."
But hiring Gratzer has been expensive. His company, EvaluMed, charged $1,300 per screening — double what his predecessor, DRI Consulting, received for its work. And EvaluMed's fee was three times what DRI's predecessor, Campion Barrow and Associates, charged.
Because numerous companies are involved in the billing process for Gratzer's services, Minneapolis has been unable to determine how much it has paid to EvaluMed in recent years.
After an open records request from APM Reports, the city took three months to produce 98 invoices amounting to $82,750, a fraction of the 371 evaluations Gratzer conducted on applicants for police and community service officer positions in Minneapolis.
Assuming those screenings were billed at the same rate that appeared on the invoices Minneapolis was able to locate, the city would have paid more than $480,000 over the past five years to EvaluMed for psychological screenings. City spokesman Casper Hill acknowledged that figure was likely accurate.
In August, the police department began soliciting bids for a new vendor, and in October it made a verbal job offer to a psychologist named Jan Tyson Roberts. No contract has been finalized, however.
Protests, firings and law suits
The decision to replace Gratzer came after activists raised concerns that he was screening out too many people of color, a replay of the way two of his predecessors were removed.
It's a controversial history that includes a lawsuit and the firing of two of the most qualified police psychologists working in the state, leaving Minneapolis few experienced screeners to choose from.
It started with Gary Fischler, whose widely cited research while working for the police department showed his screenings were effective.
His work came under fire from a group called the Police Community Relations Council, which was formed in 2003 as part of an agreement between activists and the police department. Members of the group claimed his screenings were discriminatory, though Fischler's statistics showed white and minority applicants passed at almost identical rates.
Fischler, whose firm remains one of the leading providers of law enforcement screenings in the state, says he understands why some people of color view his work with skepticism.
"People who have been discriminated against, and people who have been mistreated by the system, have good reason to not trust the system, including psychological testing," he said. "I don't blame them. I don't blame anybody who feels that this is just another example of the system mistreating me."
By 2005, the political pressure to get rid of Fischler became irresistible and the psychologist was out.
But it wasn't long before the Police Community Relations Council leveled similar allegations against the firm hired to replace him, Campion Barrow and Associates.
The co-chair of the council, Ron Edwards, said the new company was a "threat to the diversity of the MPD," according to minutes from a 2006 meeting.
In response to the criticism, Minneapolis commissioned an independent review that found the company's screenings were not biased. The report showed that in one police recruit class, Campion Barrow screened out three of the nine black applicants, but with numbers that small, it could've easily been a statistical blip. Minneapolis even had those applicants re-tested by another psychologist, who concurred they were unfit for police work.
Campion Barrow uses a human resources consultancy called the DeGarmo Group to monitor its compliance with federal anti-discrimination laws. A 2014 review covering thousands of the firm's police screenings shows white applicants passed at slightly higher rate than people of color, but the difference was relatively small, with 88 percent of whites passing compared to 85 percent of minorities. The report concludes the disparity is well within the legally allowed range.
Running out of qualified evaluators
Tom Campion, who runs the firm today, says diversity is important, but relaxing psychological standards to achieve it is dangerous. "We want officers who reflect our community. That's critical. But here's the thing: At what cost?" Campion said. "If we don't have the right person in the position, it's not fair to them, because their life's in danger. It's very difficult for fellow officers and also for the community."
Campion's firm might have survived the allegations of racial bias, but the scrutiny of its work brought to light the conservative religious views of founder Michael Campion, Tom's father. City leaders were aghast at an article the elder Campion wrote in 1977 about treating and preventing homosexuality. They immediately stopped sending recruits to his firm.
Campion sued, claiming Minneapolis violated his First Amendment rights. The city eventually paid him a $210,000 settlement.
"The community group has assassinated one capable vendor and has put another one on ice," psychologist John Fennig wrote in a 2006 email brought to light by the lawsuit. Fennig took over the screenings that year, although he acknowledged his firm had no experience in police psychology and urged the city to stick with Campion.
But with Campion and Fischler out, the city was running out of qualified vendors who specialized in police screenings.
A psychologist who works with other Minnesota police departments and who asked not to be identified said their firm has not bid on work for the Minneapolis Police Department because of its history of second-guessing the psychological recommendations.
Edwards, the former co-chair of the now-defunct Police Community Relations Council, has been in integral to that culture and, to no surprise, has played a key role in prompting Minneapolis to re-examine Gratzer's work.
Today, Edwards, 78, lives in a retirement community northwest of the city and continues his crusade to increase the diversity of the Minneapolis Police Department. "I've been here a long, long time, carrying this battle out," he said. "I'm blessed that I'm still here, still able to do it."
Slowing down efforts to diversify
Last year while Edwards was serving on another police reform task force he learned about two minority candidates who had failed Gratzer's exam. He says that's when he raised questions with police department leaders about Gratzer's work.
That sparked a department review, though it confirmed Gratzer's determination that the two applicants Edwards had flagged were unfit. "They had been screened out for a reason," said Kris Arneson, who was assistant chief at the time.
The department's leaders, however, used the occasion to look more broadly at Gratzer's testing numbers and leaders grew concerned.
"Why is it that consistently, white males passed more frequently?" Harteau, who was chief at the time, asked in an interview. "It was very consistent when you looked at the data. The percentages were always there."
Gratzer screened out 21 percent of minority applicants, but only 13 percent of white applicants, according to city data.
By comparison nationally, about 16 percent of all police applicants fail their psychological exams, according to a survey of 57 law enforcement psychologists that Corey, the Oregon police psychologist, conducted last year.
Like many big-city law enforcement agencies, the Minneapolis police force is less diverse than the population it polices. Non-whites make up about 22 percent of the department, according to a report from 2015, but they made up 36 percent of the city's population in the last census. Many large police departments have far larger gaps, according to 2015 reports from Governing Magazine and the New York Times, but Minneapolis has had a long-standing goal of bringing those numbers into alignment.
The disparity in Gratzer's numbers wasn't large enough to raise red flags under federal anti-discrimination guidelines, but it was certainly large enough to slow the city's progress toward achieving its diversity goals.
Harteau decided it was time to look for a new firm to screen recruits. The goal was to find a psychologist of color to take over the process, according to Arneson.
"I wanted to make sure our hiring was fair. And I think the best way to be fair, is to have non-whites in the group that evaluates these candidates," Arneson said. "Why not have diversity in our hiring as much as we can? We do that everywhere else in the city. So let's do it here."
By the time the city put out an official call for bids on Aug. 1, 2017, Arneson had retired, and Harteau was forced to resign following the shooting of Ruszczyk.
Arradondo took over as chief, and he was personally involved in the process of hiring a new firm to conduct the screenings. In interviewing candidates for Gratzer's replacement, he was well aware of the city's fraught history with the screening process.
In 2006, Arradondo sued the police department he would go on to lead, along with four other black officers. Among other things, the lawsuit claimed the department's psychological screenings contributed to an unfair hiring process.
The suit accused the city of "biased psychological testing of officer candidates which resulted in a higher percentage of African American candidates being screened out than white candidates," and singled out Fischler, even though his data showed no such bias.
Minneapolis denied the claims, but settled the suit for $740,000. Arradondo received $187,666.
Another evaluator who's never screened cops
The city's request for proposals, published in August, said successful applicants "must be trained and experienced specifically in the provision of pre-placement and fitness for duty psychological evaluations for public safety positions."
But, as it did when it hired Gratzer and Fennig before him, the city offered the job to a provider with no experience in the specialized field of police and public safety psychology, one of only 16 certifications recognized by the American Board of Professional Psychology.
Dr. Jan Tyson Roberts is a licensed psychologist, but she acknowledges she has never screened aspiring police officers. She has mostly worked as a counselor at Hennepin County Medical Center and in private practice.
She recognizes the learning curve, but predicts her experience conducting assessments will transfer easily. "Whether it's a widget here or a widget there, it's still a widget," Tyson Roberts said.
She hasn't decided what tests she'll administer, but she says there will be more than the one used by Gratzer. "It's never a good idea to only use one test," she said. "You always want to use collateral information when you're making a decision as important as that."
In her job interview with Arradondo, Tyson Roberts says she emphasized her "cultural competency," which she says means that she has worked extensively with minority communities and understands "different is not always deficient."
"I'm an African-American, female psychologist," said Tyson Roberts, 52. "It's no secret that there are oftentimes conflicts between the police department and communities of color, and even the Minneapolis community in general. And so if I could utilize my skills and abilities to be able to help the police department screen applicants so that they're choosing applicants that are suited and well-formed for the job, why not do that?"
In an interview with APM Reports, Arradondo said he couldn't confirm that he'd offered the job to Tyson Roberts because no contract had been finalized. Then he smiled and winked at a reporter. He said he wasn't concerned about Tyson Roberts' lack of experience.
He said diversifying the department is important, but not as important as hiring the best, most psychologically suited officers. "In the peace officer profession, the stakes are incredibly high," Arradondo said. "And while I absolutely want to see our diversity increase, because the stakes are so high, that can't be the only thing."
And yet, over the past 15 years, Minneapolis has fired some of the most qualified police psychologists in the state, and then turned to a succession of mental health professionals with little or no experience in the field.