HARRISBURG - In a controversial move, Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker has quietly scrapped the agency's long-held practice of giving lie-detector tests to its recruits.
State police officials confirmed this week that trooper applicants will no longer undergo polygraph testing as part of an extensive background check that helps determine admission into the State Police Academy.
A spokesman on Thursday said Blocker ordered the change because the testing slowed the process, leading the agency to lose qualified recruits who end up taking jobs elsewhere. Eliminating the test could shave "several weeks to months" off the process," spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said in an email.
The move drew criticism from troopers who contend the polygraph is an important tool for weeding out unqualified applicants.
"Right now, people in society want to know that we are doing everything we can to ensure that the men and women we hire are of the utmost integrity," said Joe Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, "and the polygraph test has proven to be an important tool in determining that."
Kovel said the agency has in the past even made criminal arrests of applicants during follow-up investigations that started because of information flagged during the polygraph. He said he had shared the concerns of his union's membership - more than 4,000 - to Blocker.
The move plunged the state's largest police agency into an ongoing debate among law enforcement.
Despite questions over the effectiveness and reliability of lie-detector tests, most federal, state and local law enforcement agencies use them to screen applicants. Questions can include inquiries 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 require polygraphs of applicants.
But particularly at the federal level, the results can automatically disqualify applicants, said George Maschke, a onetime U.S. Army Reserve intelligence officer and cofounder of AntiPolygraph.org, a nonprofit website that questions the reliability and effectiveness of polygraph testing.
The Pennsylvania State Police would not say how many of its academy 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 Tarkowski said the polygraph change is part of a larger effort to streamline the recruiting process - at the time the agency is facing a shortage due to retirements.
Tarkowski also said the academy still has a rigorous procedure in place to vet candidates, including written, medical and physical tests, as well as an extensive background investigation.
And starting this year, candidates will no longer need to have completed 60 college credits before applying for a job. Instead they will be allowed to complete those credits before joining the State Police Academy, where cadets go through a rigorous, 27-week training program.
In that way, the agency is among many law enforcement agencies across the country dealing with recruitment issues, examining their employment requirements to see whether they create unnecessary hurdles that deter qualified applicants, including minorities.
In an interview, Maschke, the polygraph opponent, 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."