Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker Scraps Polygraph Screening

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker

Applicants for employment with the Pennsylvania State Police will no longer be required to submit to the pseudoscientific ritual of polygraph screening. Angela Couloumbis reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

HARRISBURG – In a move sparking controversy, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker has quietly scrapped the agency’s long-held practice of administering lie-detector tests to its recruits.

State Police officials confirmed this week that applicants vying to become state troopers will no longer undergo polygraph testing as part of an extensive background check that helps determine their acceptance into the State Police Academy.

A spokesman for the State Police would not say why Blocker ordered the change. The agency also could not immediately provide information on how many candidates fail the test annually, what kind of questions are asked, or whether it has been successful in the past in identifying red flags.

But two state officials familiar with the decision said Blocker told agency managers he believes the testing slows down the hiring process, leading the State Police to lose out on qualified candidates who end up taking jobs elsewhere. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.

The fact that polygraphy has no scientific basis whatsoever is reason enough to scrap it. With respect to the Pennsylvania State Police polygraph program, AntiPolygraph.org has previously published documentation of its policies, including the specific questions asked of applicants.

Blocker is facing pushback from troopers who believe eliminating the polygraph takes away an important tool the agency has used to weed out unqualified applicants.

Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, called it a “bad idea.”

“Right now, people in society want to know that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the men and women we hire are of the outmost integrity – and the polygraph test has proven to be an important tool in determining that,” said Kovel.

He said he had expressed the concerns of his union’s membership – more than 4,000 troopers – to Blocker.

Pennsylvania State Troopers Association president Joseph R. Kovel’s misgivings about the decision to scrap the polygraph are misplaced. There is no evidence that polygraph screening results in a more honest police force. For example, there is no documentation that police forces in Pennsylvania, where polygraph screening is generally permitted, are any less honest than police forces in the neighboring state of New Jersey, where state law prohibits polygraph screening of police applicants.

Moreover, as more and more people in society come to understand that polygraph “testing” is a pseudoscientific fraud, the fact that police agencies rely on it in the hiring process will increasingly inspire the opposite of confidence.

Despite debate over the effectiveness and reliability of lie-detector tests, most federal, state and local law enforcement agencies use them when screening applicants. Candidates may be asked, for instance, about sexual activity, employers, past drug use, contact with criminals or legal actions against them.

There are exceptions: the New York City Police Department and the New Jersey State Police, for instance, do not use polygraphs in pre-employment screening.

But particularly at the federal level, the results can automatically disqualify applicants, said George Maschke, a onetime U.S. Army reserve intelligence officer and co-founder of AntiPolygraph.org, a non-profit website that questions the reliability and effectiveness of polygraph testing, as well as the science behind them.

In an interview, Maschke called the State Police’s decision to scrap the test “a wise one.”

He called the science behind them “junk,” and said they can easily be manipulated by knowledgeable applicants. Conversely, he said, the tests can also produce faulty results because the things they measure – such as changes in breathing, perspiration and blood pressure – often occur for reasons other than lying.

“Resentment at being asked an accusatory question, fear of not being believed even though you are telling the truth, embarrassment over being asked a personal question – all sorts of things could cause those changes,” said Maschke. “Even the tone of voice of the interrogators can produce that change.”

Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker is to be commended for his decision to terminate the long-held but invalid practice of polygraph screening. It is inherently biased against the truthful, resulting in many false positives, while liars can easily fool the polygraph using simple countermeasures that polygraph operators cannot detect. Other law enforcement agency leaders should take note and follow Commissioner Blocker’s example.