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Provider of mental health evaluations for Baltimore police under investigation

The company contracted to conduct mental health screens of aspiring Baltimore police officers is under investigation by the city's inspector general and legal department over allegations that it rushed those evaluations, according to city officials and documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The investigation focuses on whether Lutherville-based Psychology Consultants Associated fulfilled the requirements of its $730,000, two-year contract with the city. PCA allegedly conducted evaluations of prospective police officers in as little as 15 minutes, instead of the hour required under the contract to clear them for service, officials said.

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"The allegations raised are obviously very concerning," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to whom the Police Department referred all questions. "The mayor wants to determine what exactly the truth is, so an investigation is under way. ... Every allegation that has been raised will be examined."

PCA, which has provided evaluations for more than a dozen law enforcement agencies across the state, became the city's sole contractor in 2005. The city investigation follows another by Maryland State Police that found PCA conducted evaluations of aspiring troopers too quickly, violating its contract, according to state officials.

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State police have retained PCA, despite the findings, under a "probationary status."

Robert H. Pearre Jr., the city's inspector general, said Wednesday that his office is "in the very early stages" of its investigation. "In keeping with our policy, we do not comment on the details of ongoing investigations," he said.

Beyond screening prospective officers — the Baltimore department has hired 1,875 new officers since 2005 — PCA counsels officers involved in violent or traumatic incidents, including police shootings, as well as those with other issues such as alcoholism, anger management, domestic problems and violent tendencies. The force has about 3,000 officers.

Richard G. Berger, an attorney for PCA's president, Dr. Kenneth Sachs, and the company, said Wednesday that Sachs denies "all allegations" against him and his firm.

"He has not violated any regulations, and that was supported by a decision by the Maryland State Police," Berger said. He acknowledged the company had been put on probation by the state police.

"At this time, we're unaware of any other investigations that may be ongoing," Berger added, "but we deny everything."

The allegations come as the city Police Department seeks to combat deep-seated community mistrust based on widespread claims of police brutality, particularly against poor black residents, and a lack of community engagement from officers considered gruff or antagonistic by some community leaders and activists.

The department is also trying to improve relations with its rank-and-file officers, some of whom have complained of being thrown into dangerous and traumatizing situations during the unrest following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody in April.

Baltimore police have been plagued by allegations of misconduct by officers, and the department is under a sweeping federal review by the Justice Department. In October, a Sun investigation revealed that police leaders, city attorneys and other top officials were not keeping track of officers who repeatedly faced lawsuits alleging brutality, despite the city's paying out millions of dollars to settle such claims in court.

The city signed a two-year contract with PCA in 2013 for $730,000. The contract expired in April; officials did not respond to questions about whether the city approved an extension allowed in the contract. State police signed a five-year contract with the company in 2014 for $400,000.

On its website, PCA describes itself as "one of the first psychological group practices of its kind" in Maryland.

"We have successfully been treating patients since 1972 and have 'written the book' on how a good mental health practice should operate," its website says.

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The investigations began after psychologist Tali Shokek brought concerns about an email she said she received from Sachs in April to various state and city officials, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the state attorney general's office, Maryland State Police, the Baltimore Police Department, and the mayor's administration.

In an April 8 email Shokek provided to The Sun, Sachs writes, "Tali, Are you licensed as a psychologist? If so, we have a bunch of brief evals to do for selection of police officers. It is a structured interview and you [will] have some scored psych tests. 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. Give me a call if interested. Ken."

Shokek said she was alarmed after receiving the email and speaking with Sachs on the phone, and felt obligated to report her experience to the various agencies.

"There's not much you can glean from being with a person for 15 or 20 minutes," Shokek said in an interview. "If ... he doesn't evaluate them as long as he should be, essentially what he's doing is allowing people who haven't been screened to be on the street and to have a weapon on the street."

Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said he had no knowledge of the allegations. Ryan said he couldn't speak to individual officers' experiences because that information is protected by federal privacy laws.

"It's a city contract with which we have no input," he said. "In fact, we don't even know what's in the contract."

Documents obtained through a public information request show that when Shokek took her concerns to the attorney general's office, it directed her to the Maryland Board of Examiners of Psychologists. The board reviews complaints against psychologists.

Lorraine Smith, executive director of the board, declined to comment.

Experts in the field questioned the ability of a psychologist to conduct a screening in 15 or 20 minutes — even when those psychologists are provided the results of background checks on the individuals ahead of time.

"I have not been able to figure out a way to get comprehensive information, even from a very young applicant with minimal work history, minimal issues, in less than 30 minutes," said Heather McElroy, vice chair of the psychological services section for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

McElroy, the managing partner of a psychology practice outside Atlanta that specializes in such screenings and a sworn officer in a local police department, said she tells psychologists under contract with her company that they should expect each interview to last an hour.

"In 15 minutes, I barely know why [applicants] are there," she said.

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Susan Saxe-Clifford, immediate past chair of the Psychologists in Public Service division of the American Psychological Association and a police psychologist for decades, said police applicants have to be "looked at pretty thoroughly."

Beyond a candidate's personal and mental health history, police psychologists are looking to gauge a candidate's judgment and for traits that are consistent with the demands of a law enforcement job, such as the ability to manage stress, patience, interpersonal skills and being in tune with cultural dynamics, she said.

"The psychologist that does this work really needs to understand the job, the laws, the culture in the department, the culture in the community, the needs of the agency, the rest of the process of hiring," she said.

McElroy said proper assessments of officers are a critical piece of a larger process to ensure that people being put in an extremely difficult job can handle it. "The potential for dangerousness if the wrong person gets into a police department is really high," she said.

In June, Maryland State Police officials determined that PCA and Sachs were conducting 15- to 20-minute evaluations of aspiring state troopers instead of the 45-minute evaluations required in the contract, said Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman. He said that the agency was still meeting the state regulatory standard for screening employees.

"We determined there was one element of the contract that he was not following," Shipley said. "We addressed that and put a system in place to monitor that in the future, but that has been taken care of and all other aspects of the contract were being fulfilled, and we're moving ahead."

According to a "Vendor Performance Report" disclosed by state police and signed by that agency's Human Resources Division director, Donald Lewis, on June 10, officials met with representatives of PCA and "developed a tracking mechanism" to ensure that the terms of the contract are met in the future.

Shokek said this week that she hasn't received adequate responses to her concerns from multiple agencies, including the city.

"This is an important piece of the puzzle as to what is going on in the city," she said, "and at the very least it should have been made public."

In the company's 2014 proposal for the state police contract, it said "fitness for duty" evaluations for police officers "can aid the Agency in making appropriate decisions to both address the trooper's difficulties, as well as protect the Agency, the trooper and the general public from potentially dangerous behavior."

"Over the years, we have developed and implemented state of the art programs in stress management and educational programs for police officers," the proposal says. "All members of our health team at PCA have extensive training and experience in dealing with law enforcement and public services agencies."

Aside from Baltimore police and state police, the proposal says PCA had been awarded a contract with Baltimore schools police, and that it has provided or currently provides services to 18 other agencies, including police departments or sheriff's offices in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Howard and Harford counties and the police departments for several local universities.

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A previous version of this article incorrectly described an action taken by the Maryland Board of Examiners of Psychologists. The board has declined to comment.

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