Embattled police psych firm being made 'scapegoat' for city unrest, attorney says

Embattled police psych firm being made 'scapegoat' for city unrest, attorney says

The firm suspended amid allegations it rushed mental health evaluations of prospective police officers is being used as "a scapegoat regarding the unrest on the streets of Baltimore and the potential effect it may have on the Freddie Gray case," the firm's attorney said Wednesday.

Richard Berger, the attorney for Lutherville-based Psychology Consultants Associated, said the firm's president, Dr. Kenneth Sachs, is cooperating with an investigation into the allegations by the city's inspector general. Berger has denied the allegations against his client.

"When all is said and done [and] these investigations are completed, he will be exonerated of any wrongdoing," Berger said.

In a letter sent this week to Baltimore Police, Baltimore schools police and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, Berger said Sachs explained how his company conducts more thorough evaluations than has been alleged.

The firm has been accused of conducting city police officer screenings in 15 minutes, instead of the hour required under its contract with the city. The city had recently extended a two-year, $730,000 contract with the firm to evaluate applicants and provide psychological and therapy services to current officers and firefighters.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said last week that the city would no longer refer its police, firefighters or their family members to Psychology Consultants while the firm is under investigation.

Baltimore school officials also said last week that they planned to stop using the company to evaluate school police officers. The school system had employed Psychology Consultants on an as-needed basis and paid the firm $665,000 since 2001.

On Wednesday, a Juvenile Services spokesman said that the department is "reevaluating the renewal" of its contract with Psychology Consultants based on "recent concerns" from other agencies.

The Maryland State Police placed Psychology Consultants on probation after officials said they found the firm was screening prospective state troopers in as little as 15 minutes, instead of the 45 minutes required in its contract.

Gray, 25, died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody. His death sparked protests over police brutality. After his funeral, rioting, looting and arson broke out.

The case has placed a spotlight on city police officers and the level of mistrust of the police in communities. Six officers have been charged in Gray's death and arrest; all have pleaded not guilty.

The Baltimore department has hired 1,875 new officers since Psychology Consultants became its sole screener in 2005. The firm also counsels officers involved in violent or traumatic incidents, including police shootings, as well as those with other issues such as alcoholism or domestic problems. The force has about 3,000 officers.

The investigations into Psychology Consultants' screening practices began earlier this year after psychologist Tali Shokek brought concerns about Sachs to various state and city officials.

She said she received an email in April from Sachs asking if she was a licensed psychologist and available to evaluate police officers. According to the email Shokek provided, Sachs wrote: "You can see 5-10 per day and perhaps more. It takes me 15-20 minutes to interview and dictate a boilerplate report. You'll see 3-4 per hour and get paid $50 each."

Berger said Sachs later wrote a letter to Shokek to clarify his characterization of the evaluations but never sent it to Shokek "on advice of prior counsel." Berger said he sent that letter to the three agencies this week.

In the letter, Sachs said the email he sent to gauge Shokek's interest in assisting with screenings only provided "the most cursory information" and did not make clear that the process would also include other measures, including administering additional tests required by individual client agencies, such as the Inwald Personality Inventory and the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale.

"You would have to interpret all the test results and findings prior to conducting the face-to-face interview. You would also need to dictate or type a report for each applicant," Sachs wrote in the letter. "When I indicated that you could complete four interviews in an hour, that was only a portion of the process."

In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Shokek said her "only purpose in this was to protect the public and to be diligent as a psychologist in my own profession."

krector@baltsun.com

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