HARRISBURG - In a move likely to spark 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.
They also said 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.
The union representing troopers could not immediately be reached for comment.
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."