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Quebec police cadets subject to 'suitability' testing

Recruits practice drills at the Ecole nationale de police du Quebec in Nicolet, Que.

Christinne Muschi/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

The aspiring police officers can pass their physicals and answer the ABCs of taking down a criminal suspect - but can they demonstrate they're not sexists or bullies?

In a bid to meet the demands for a kinder, more professional police officer, Quebec's police academy has introduced a psychological test designed to weed out problem candidates before they get a badge and gun.

The test is intended not just to catch "wackos" itching to be in uniform, as one expert said; it's meant to suss out anyone with the potential for unseemly conduct.

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"We want to detect behaviour that's unprofessional, candidates who might use excessive force, those who show sexist or racist attitudes," said Pierre Saint-Antoine, a spokesman for the École nationale de police in Nicolet, Que.

All major Canadian police forces use some kind of psychological screening for cadets. In Quebec, where would-be officers attend training school before they can get hired, the new testing goes further by statistically predicting the likelihood of trouble down the road, according to the police academy.

We're not just looking for people with high IQs, but people with a capacity for emotional intelligence, which is the heavy tendency nowadays in police services. Jean-Guy Gagnon, deputy chief of the Montreal police

This year, applicants to the academy sat down to respond to 455 statements: The public shouldn't know too much about a police officer's private life. It's wrong to lie to a suspect, even when it doesn't violate any rules. I never drive over the speed limit.

Their answers were designed to predict the likelihood of anything from poor interpersonal skills to the potential for excessive force. Another test, also introduced this year, evaluated their judgment under stress. All told, about 40 candidates flunked, out of 870 applicants, and were rejected.

The police academy brought in the evaluations after complaints from Quebec police forces that, even after 15 weeks in the academy and three years of college-level police technology courses that are mandatory in Quebec, some young graduates had troublesome traits that no amount of training would change.

The tests reflect a challenge for law-enforcement agencies as they look for ways to evaluate recruits on more than brawn and good grades, experts say.

"You can have a very bright wacko who can run 8k in nothing flat - but there's no assessment of his suitability [to become an officer]" said Jim Anderson, a former police officer and chairman of the police technology program at John Abbott College near Montreal. "So this is a really good step, and it's high time."

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The psychological test at Nicolet, known as M-Pulse, is being used by 800 police forces in the United States and tested by several police departments in Canada. The Ontario Provincial Police are evaluating it.

It comes as Canadian police forces face growing pressure to respond to ethnic diversity, and adopt a less brass-knuckles approach to policing.

"We're not just looking for people with high IQs, but people with a capacity for emotional intelligence, which is the heavy tendency nowadays in police services," said Jean-Guy Gagnon, deputy chief of the Montreal police. (A new chief, Marc Parent, was sworn in on Monday.)

Dorothy Cotton, a correctional psychologist in Kingston, Ont. and expert on police psychology, says the test reflects shifts in police work in Canada.

"When you look at traditional policing, it's very much an almost paramilitary kind of culture. Police pretty well only spoke to other police, they didn't really interact with the public," she said. "The world has changed. Policing and public safety now is much more a community activity."

The stakes for good psychological evaluations are high, she said, "because at the end of the day, these are guys who carry guns."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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