Colin McCallin July 29, 2016

"We're hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. We'll put you in your neighborhood and we will help you resolve some of the problems you're protesting about."

Chief David Brown, Dallas Police

When Dallas police were struck down on July 7, one of Chief Brown’s many thoughtful responses included this call to serve. And many listened. While the usual rate of applicants is around 11 per day, so low that Dallas Police Academy classes were being cancelled, they have since jumped to almost 40 applicants per day. But what does it actually take to become a police officer? We will also look at a case where an applicant was rejected for scoring too high on an intelligence test. 

Police Officer Requirements 

Every municipality will have different specific requirements of their applicants but there are certain qualities all police look for in new recruits. To begin, there are age and residency requirements that need to be met. In Denver you must be at least 21 with acceptable state -issued ID. A person is expected to have a high school diploma or GED but there are cities, like Dallas, where at least a two year associate’s degree is desired. You also must be able to pass a physical fitness test. And of course, the person must pass a background check and cannot have any felonies, certain kinds of misdemeanors or certain traffic issues on their record. Misdemeanors that will exclude you usually involve crimes such as assault or crimes of honesty, like theft or fraud. Traffic issues may haunt you as well, for example, a careless driving conviction is considered an issue for someone who is expected to patrol by car for a living. Lastly, drug use is frowned upon, and in Colorado that includes marijuana, even if it is medically prescribed. Each individual is reviewed on a case by case basis in light of their background and character. Once initial requirements are met, there are further screening processes and then training in the police academy.  

The Wonderlic Personnel Test 

The Wonderlic test is an intellectual assessment that police forces and other professions use, including the Armed Forces and the NFL, to screen potential employees. It consists of 50 multiple choice questions that must be answered within 12 minutes. It is basically a fast IQ test with fairly accurate results that asks increasingly difficult, open ended questions. A score of 20 is considered average and comparable to an IQ score of 100. Typically, scorers in the high 20s and 30s are considered above average and may perform well in professions like science or education. An average football player scores around 20 and most teams want a QB who can score at least a 21, most quarterbacks average a 24. Police typically look for someone of average or above average intelligence using this test. 

Can a Cop be Too Smart? 

In 1996, Robert Jordan decided to apply to become a police officer in New London, Connecticut. He met the initial requirements and sat for the Wonderlic, where he scored a 33, well above average, but he never got called back. Jordan, who was 46 at the time, thought it might have to do with this age, so he reached out to learn more. He found that the New London police look for recruits who score between 21 and 27, and that he scored too high to be accepted. Jordan felt an upper limit made no sense so he pursued a discrimination case against the police, arguing that they used his intelligence against him. Eventually the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard his case and decided against him. They determined there was no discrimination because everyone who scores above a 27 is treated the same, and that the police had good reasons to create that upper limit. What were those reasons? That an individual who is too smart will get bored with police work and may move on after expensive training has been invested in them. They argued this policy reduced turnover and saved money, and the Court concluded this policy was sound. 

Should an Applicant Try to Score Low? 

Getting an average score on the Wonderlic is nothing to scoff at; police are at least as smart as any other average person and are perfectly capable of performing their duties well. Also, if you are interested in police work it is best to test honestly. Not every police force has an upper limit, very few disclose if they do and there are positions within departments that have different requirements. In the end it is important to realize that police work is demanding.  Different departments may assess what they need in recruits differently. But if the concerns are retention and better policing over time, then police departments may also find it worthwhile to consider policy changes and not just limiting the intelligence of recruits.