ABSTRACT:     Police departments around the nation serve communities by relying on vital civilian staff. Recently, many police departments have experienced distressing events that are centered around one or more of the department civilian personnel.  These debacles expose the vulnerability that departments face in regards to corrupt civilian employees.  Although many things are done to address the issue after the fact, pre-employment polygraph standards have largely remained unchanged. At present, many departments are not bound by policy or procedure to polygraph their civilian employees before hiring them.  Failure to require all employees to submit to a pre-employment polygraph might leave the door open to the possibility of employing individuals that are susceptible to corruption or misconduct. The research concludes that adding a polygraph examination as another successive hurdle to the application process for all police department applicants will help improve the quality of individuals being hired.  As agencies moves forward with this policy and procedure, the department and community members alike will benefit from a more qualified employee.       


Recently, many departments have experienced distressing events that center on misconduct committed by one of the department’s civilian personnel.  These debacles expose the vulnerability departments have in regards to corrupt civilian employees.  Although many things are done to address these issues after the fact, pre-employment polygraph standards have largely remained unchanged.  If a policy of polygraphing civilians before they are hired is in place, it may make it more difficult for corrupt candidates to be hired.

At present, many departments are not bound by policy or procedure to polygraph civilian employees.  It should be understood that a new policy of polygraphing non-sworn employees will not stop every unethical or immoral person from entering the ranks of the civilian staff at police departments.  Failure to require all employees to submit to a pre-employment polygraph leaves the door open to the possibility of hiring a corrupt employee that is susceptible to misconduct or even criminal acts.



Debates have followed the use of polygraph testing since its inception.  The predictability of dishonest behavior continues to be a major obstacle to acceptance of the concept of honesty testing (Stone, 1992).  These tests have been questioned on issues ranging from reliability and validity to legality and constitutionality.  This debate came to a head when the federal government decided to enact a law that protected private employees from being forced to take polygraph examinations.  This law was entitled The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA).  This act will be discussed further in the Legal Issues section of this article.

Although there is a sizable amount of opposition that seeks to discredit polygraph and those that use it in decision making, public sectors across the nation continue to utilize it as a step in the applicant selection process.  Organizations with strong personnel security vetting through polygraph examinations can identify organization members who may be more likely to commit various types of misconduct and criminal transgressions (Guido and Brooks, 2013).  Identifying these individuals before misconduct is committed will always be a potential problem for department executives.  Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  If this same mentality was applied to pre-employment polygraph it would be easy to conclude that spending extra time before the problem occurs saves precious time in the long run.

Legal Issues

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) is a United States federal law that generally prevents employers from using polygraph tests during the course of employment, with certain exemptions.  The Act provided for provisions that exempted the United States Government, any state or local government, or any political subdivision of a state or local government (Employee Polygraph Protection Act, 1988).  But this was not the only time polygraph practices in pre-employment were legally challenged.

The United States v. City of Austin Texas was a landmark case that addressed hiring issues with the city of Austin, Texas.  In a ruling against the city, the court found that Austin’s use of cognitive/behavioral test scores, as well as other selection process factors, as a pass/fail device in its 2012 hiring process had a statistically significant adverse impact on African-American and Hispanic applicants (United States v. The City of Austin, Texas, 2014).  Although polygraph testing was not the only factor in this decision, it was specifically cited.  This further hampered those in the polygraph community who desired to polygraph a larger percentage of public employee candidates. 

Validity and Reliability Issues

There have been numerous studies in regards to the validity and reliability of polygraph testing as a whole.  One of those studies was conducted by Handler, Honts and Nelson (2013).  This study revealed that a conditional probability analysis of 900 truthful and 100 deceptive applicants with a Psychophysiological Detection of Deception (PDD) test can be accurate 90 percent of the time.  This should be of comfort to law enforcement executives around the country that are grappling with the notion that civilian employees should not be polygraphed based on reliability problems with the examination.  As the American Association of Police Polygraphist Research & Information Chair Mark Handler told me in an email correspondence, “successive hurdles” are extremely important in the hiring process of all employees of a police department.  Successive hurdles in the application process are defined as the amount of separate or independent tests, or hurdles, the applicant has to overcome to be hired. Without the polygraph, one hurdle is effectively eliminated in the pre-employment process for non-sworn candidates.  This also eliminates the only step that attempts to detect deception in the application process through a method other than human intuition.

The authors of the EPPA were very skeptical of the validity of polygraph testing; however, they conceded that such testing may still be useful in terms of deterring employment applications from potentially poor security risks while increasing public confidence in security organizations (Faber, 2011).  This skepticism that was displayed by the federal government in the EPPA and other reports are often shared by public sector employers.  This should not preclude law enforcement executives from protecting their agencies in any way they can. In order to build trust with the public, executives should do everything in their power to ensure the best candidates are being hired.

Although research has shown there are questions with regard to the validity and the reliability of the polygraph exam, improvements in the consistency of use and standardization of practices would raise the validity and reliability of the polygraph exam as a screening device (Kircher and Raskin, 1988; Honts and Amato, 2007; Mark, 2014).  While validity can be an issue, use of polygraph examinations are still supported by empirical data, unlike the unassisted efforts of interviews alone (Handler, Honts and Nelson, 2013).  Guessing on the truth or deception of an individual would be merely chance, or slightly better, without a polygraph.  A background investigation done on a civilian employee is almost solely dependent on answers they provide in the application packet.  Thus, determining truth in the answers of the applicant is merely a gesture of chance without further Psychophysiological Detection of Deception tests.


A recent study of the ten largest police departments in the United States (New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, Dallas, Miami-Dade, and Detroit) revealed that there is very little consistency in regards to the handling of pre-employment polygraphs in general (Mark, 2014).  This is surprising due to the fact that most of the chiefs of police and sheriffs in those agencies attend many of the same leadership trainings and meetings together (most notably the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).  Research as long as ago as 1995 (Meesig and Horvath) suggested that many of these agencies surveyed agreed that polygraphing civilian employees was acceptable and in fact conducted such examinations.  This study showed that although it was a fairly novel idea at the time, subjecting non-sworn employees to a polygraph examination was positively viewed by the executives of these agencies. This positive view may transition to citizens as well.

A wide array of citizens, from victims of deviant crimes to citizens that commit common traffic violations, can rest assured that the department has taken their security and privacy concerns very seriously and thus have thoroughly scrutinized every organizational member’s background. Garrison (2016) quoted Farmington New Mexico Police Chief Hebbe in a recent news story as making the perceptive comment, “When a department member, civilian or not, faces a lengthy prison sentence, it is bad for the employee, it is bad for their family and it is bad for both the department and the community.”

As previously stated, the concept of successive hurdles is critical in the pre-employment selection process.  By compelling an applicant to successfully complete a series of screening tests, it is hoped that the most qualified candidates will emerge as the clear victors of the process.  Arguably the most important hurdle in the hiring process of any new department member is a thorough background investigation. In many respects, the polygraph is an extension of the background investigation, as this assessment can serve to confirm that the information received through the background investigation and the oral interview process is truthful. The results of the polygraph examination should be viewed as an investigative tool only and should not be used as the single determinant of whether or not to hire a candidate (Kurz, 2015).


The research concludes that adding a polygraph examination as another successive hurdle to the application process for all police department applicants will help improve the quality of individuals being hired.  Pre-employment polygraphs for all personnel is the best solution to help propel departments into the new era of public trust where transparency and dedication to accountability are not only sought after but expected.  As the agencies move forward, the department and community members alike will benefit from a more qualified employee.


Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988, 29 USC 2001 §646-653.

Faber, B.  (2011).  Pre-employment Polygraph Examinations of Public Safety Applicants.  AELE Monthly Law Journal, 201 (7).   ISSN 19350007.

Garrison, S.  (2016, February 15).  Former police employee pleads guilty in thefts.  The Daily Times.  Retrieved from

Guido, M. and Brooks, M.  (2013).  Insider Threat Program Best Practices.  46th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1831-1839. DOI:10.1109/HICSS.2013.279.

Handler, M., Honts, C. and Nelson, R.  (2013).  Information Gain of the Directed Lie Screening Test.  Polygraph, 42(4), 192-202.

Honts, C. R., and Amato, S. (2007). Automation of a screening polygraph test increases accuracy. Psychology, Crime & Law, 13, 187-19.

Kircher, J. C., and Raskin, D. C. (1988). Human versus computerized evaluations of polygraph data in a laboratory setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73(2), 291-302.

Kurz, D.  (2015).  Big Ideas for Smaller Law Enforcement Agencies: Back to Basics:       Developing a Hiring Process in Smaller Agencies. International Association of Chiefs of Police.  Document number 639098.

Mark, J.  (2014). The consistency of the use of the polygraph exam during the selection process   among law enforcement agencies.  Theses and Dissertations Submitted to the Department of Psychology College of Science and Mathematics at Rowan University. Paper 551.

Meesig, R. and Horvath, F.  (1995). A National Survey of Practices, Policies and Evaluative Comments on the Use of Pre-Employment Polygraph Screening in Police Agencies in theUnited States.  Polygraph, 24(2), 57-136.

Stone, D. H. (1992). Pre-Employment Inquiries: Drug Testing, Alcohol Screening, Physical Exams, Honesty Testing, Genetics Screening - Do They Discriminate? An Empirical Study.  Akron Law Review, 25(2), 367-407 Available at:  United States v. The City of Austin, Texas, 1:14-CV-00533 (W.D. Tex. 2014).

About the Author:

Kyle Dowdy is a Captain at the Farmington New Mexico Police Department. He is licensed to administer polygraph examinations in New Mexico and is a member of the American Polygraph Association. He has a Masters Degree in Criminal Justice from New Mexico State University and is a graduate of Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety School of Police Staff and Command as well as The FBI National Academy, Session #273.