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Will Lie Detector Tests Weed Out Racist Cops?

By March 11, 2013

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A Tennessee police chief has decided to crack down on racism in his department by subjecting applicants to lie detector tests. Shane Sullivan, chief of the Coopertown Police Department, is requiring prospective hires to take a polygraph test in which they're asked if they've ever committed a race-based hate crime, the Associated Press reports. Sullivan will also perform background checks on applicants to determine if they've engaged in race-based misconduct.

"It doesn't ask if you've ever made a racist remark or slur," Sullivan told the AP. "Nor does the test ask people if they are prejudiced against any ethnic or religious minority."

Sullivan, who became police chief in November, has set out to change Coopertown's image after the 95 percent white town of 4,000 has been rocked by race-based scandals over the years. The police department has been accused of targeting Hispanics and out-of-towners for traffic tickets, for example. In addition, an officer was recorded using a racial slur to describe an African-American motorist.

Sullivan thinks the lie detector test will discourage racists from applying to work at the department. "I've told a couple of ones about the polygraph who have not called me back," he told the AP.

News of the test has received mixed reactions from people outside of Coopertown. The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argues that lie detector tests can be problematic. Carolyn Murray, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, recommended that Sullivan rely on other tests to determine if officers are racists, "such as ones that use images of different racial groups and gauge reaction time when they are described as either 'good' or 'bad.'" Despite her criticism, Murray also praised Sullivan for making the effort to weed out racist cops.

"You're not going to get everybody, but you will be able to stop a few people who would have been able to do a lot of damage to citizens," she said.

What do you think? Will lie detector tests reduce racial profiling and police brutality against minority groups?






March 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm
(1) Ann Alford says:

Though a polygraph is not the best wat to rule out racist people, it is a start and at least this chief is making an effort that has not been made in the past. We should be supportive and continue to offer suggestions and more ways to help instead of condeming his efforts. Yes, back ground checks, reaction times to racist stimuli and other known techniques would be a great addition, but kudos for your efforts chief.

March 12, 2013 at 10:12 am
(2) KLS says:

I must say that I’m quite surprised to see any police chief, let alone a police chief in a southern town, acknowledging and attempting to address racism within his department. As Dr. Murray (one of my former professors :-) from my time at UCR) mentioned, there are other more effective methods, but this is a good first step. I recently watched a C-SPAN broadcast of a conference of black legislators and learned of the amazing work being done in the area of understanding the psychology of race. I was quite encouraged by the bravery of police departments willing to participate and commission studies on racial profiling in their departments. New York and California (my home state) could take a lesson, especially NYC and L.A. Thanks for posting this article.

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