When Gerald Cooke heard the news that African Americans were less likely than whites to pass a psychological evaluation to become Philadelphia police officers, it sounded familiar.

He tried to fix the same problem two decades ago.

Last month, an Inquirer analysis found that from 2011 to 2014, 72.5 percent of black police applicants passed the department's psych evaluation, compared with 81.2 percent of white candidates.

In the early 1990s, the disparity was even greater, said Cooke, a forensic psychologist based in Plymouth Meeting. He said the passing rate for black applicants was less than 80 percent of that for whites - failing to meet a guideline set by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The city did not admit any discrimination at the time but revised its screening procedures with Cooke's input, under the terms of a 1994 federal consent decree.

Part of the problem then - and, Cooke suspects, now - is that psychologists relied too heavily on a common standardized test that was not originally designed for employment screening.

The test is called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2, a widely used true-false exam that is designed to identify psychopathology - that is, to aid a psychologist in rendering a mental-health diagnosis.

Cooke and several other psychologists said the MMPI-2 was not designed to screen candidates for employment, much less to determine who would be a good police officer. They said it was important to administer one of several additional standardized psych tests in order to obtain a more accurate picture of a candidate's fitness for duty, along with conducting an interview.

A second test

Unlike those in many police departments elsewhere in the country, the psychologists contracted by the Philadelphia police do not administer a second test to prospective officers, though they do conduct interviews.

Asked in December about the disparities in white and black passing rates, police human resources director Heather McCaffrey said the department was in the process of improving its evaluation process.

She said the department had hired a chief psychologist to revamp the process, but declined to comment further, as the changes were still underway. A department representative said Thursday that the police had no additional comment.

Unlike states such as California, Pennsylvania does not require a second test, but that does not preclude its use, said H. Anthony Semone, a Philadelphia-area psychologist who consults for multiple police departments in the state.

"For the MMPI-2 to be used as the only instrument, I have serious, serious, problems with that," he said.

If a person taking the MMPI-2 shows signs of a mental-health issue, that does not necessarily indicate an inability to exercise judgment, he said. Plenty of people function well with medication, for example.

"A lot of people have mental-health issues," Semone said. "There's a lot of folks who walk around depressed who perform perfectly well as law enforcement officers as well as physicians and taxi drivers."

Keeping race in mind

Cooke, the psychologist brought in to advise Philadelphia two decades ago, said it is important to keep race in mind when administering the MMPI-2. African Americans and whites may score differently on certain parts of the test due to life experiences.

For example, the test attempts to measure for paranoia, among other kinds of "abnormal" psychology: feelings that others are plotting against them or trying to make their lives more difficult.

A black person might have justification for feeling that way due to life circumstances, whereas a white person with the same score on the test's paranoid scale might truly have a mental-health issue, Cooke said.

Failure to understand such subtleties can lead to wide variations in employment screenings, he said.

In the 1990s, more than a dozen contracted psychologists were evaluating potential police officers in Philadelphia. Some green-lighted up to 95 percent of the applicants they screened, while others approved only half, Cooke said.

David Fisher, president of the National Black Police Association's Greater Philadelphia chapter, agreed that one test was insufficient to pass judgment on an applicant.

"You should be given the second opportunity with the other test," Fisher said.

Sharon M. Dietrich, an attorney who represented black officers in the case leading to the 1994 consent decree, said at least one other flaw in the screening process contributed to the disparity back then. Many of her clients were eager to climb the economic ladder and thus had switched jobs multiple times, she said.

"This was then held against them, as a sign of instability of some sort," said Dietrich, litigation director for the nonprofit Community Legal Services Inc. After the consent decree was entered, most were deemed fit for duty and were admitted to the Police Academy, she said.

Hearing about the current disparity, she expressed dismay.

"At a time when police departments are under such scrutiny about their ability to deal well with the community, you don't want to see racially disparate criteria keep minorities out of police departments," she said.

tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

@TomAvril1