Susan Saxe-Clifford is relaxed and friendly when she asks applicants why they want to become police officers. The innocent nature of the question belies its importance.
Saxe-Clifford is a psychologist for more than 20 police agencies in Southern California, including the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Her primary task is to make a psychological evaluation of a potential recruit. To do that, she first finds out what motivates candidates to seek a police career. That often leads to other revelations which help her evaluate them.
In 16 years of psychological screening, Saxe-Clifford has heard it all.
"I've always wanted to be in a shoot-out," one man answered when she asked why he wanted a police career.
She asked another, older candidate: "Why do you want to become a police officer now?"
His response: "I've never been able to hold onto a job; I'm going into police work to see if it will help me straighten out my life."
Trigger-happy applicants don't get past Saxe-Clifford. Neither do people who think they can discipline their lives with a law enforcement career.
And if you don't get past Susan Saxe-Clifford, you don't become a police officer for any of the agencies who contract for her services.
Saxe-Clifford's contracts in Orange County include the Sheriff's Department, and the Irvine, Westminster and Orange police departments. Heavy recruitment by the Sheriff's Department the past year because of federal court pressure to expand county jail facilities has kept her busy.
Saxe-Clifford, who is 39, began her forensic psychology career with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1970. She set up her own practice, based in Sherman Oaks, in 1978.
She does not see herself wielding power over the applicant's life. She does not have veto power, she points out. She only makes recommendations on a candidate's psychological fitness to become a police officer.
But none of the agencies who use her services have ever bucked her. When she says someone is not psychologically fit, that person's application process abruptly comes to an end.
Psychological testing is new to many police agencies. Some, like the Los Angeles Police Department, have required a psychological review for applicants for years. But the Orange County Sheriff's Department, for example, resisted psychological testing until a state law in 1984 made it mandatory. (Saxe-Clifford was hired by the Sheriff's Department last year.)
Sheriff Brad Gates had been convinced his stringent application process already eliminated unqualified candidates. Now his staff is hoping that Saxe-Clifford can save tax dollars by weeding out many applicants who end up dropping out before completing the 18-week training program that is so expensive to the county.
Saxe-Clifford sees psychological tests as important but not a perfect screening process.
"It is not an exact science," she said in an interview. "It can give you a picture of how a person has behaved in the past and how that person might behave in the future. But there is no testing that can tell you, for sure, how a person will behave in a critical situation five years down the road."
In most cases, the applicants she sees have already been through a series of other screenings--written, medical and oral testing and background investigation.
That means she gets those in the final running. Yet her rejection rate is still about 20%. And most other police psychologists, she said, have an even higher rate.
Many applicants simply do not realize how demanding police work can be, she explained.
"Emotional maturity is what we're looking for," Saxe-Clifford said. "You are giving somebody not only the right to shoot somebody, but the responsibility that they must, in certain situations."
Applicants she recommends against hiring often are either too aggressive or not aggressive enough, she said.
She points to two other qualities which are sometimes difficult to find in the same person:
"A police officer is an executive who must make high-level decisions which will stand. But the officer also works in a semimilitaristic organization with a chain of command. So the officer must have the unique ability to function totally independent at times but also follow orders. Those are two opposite qualities."
She also wants people with good self-esteem and the ability to communicate.
Those who cannot communicate are too likely to try to do their talking with violence, she said. People with self-esteem, she added, know who they are and what their values are.
"If they are looking for this badge to give them self-esteem, there's going to be big trouble," she said.
Police agencies do not want people with either financial problems, serious family problems or sexual problems. She repeatedly hears about all three. She also has found that no patterns have developed to show that women applicants are better than men, for example, or that older applicants are better than younger ones.