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Psychologist screens for jail deputies

Dr. Vincent Skotko, who works in clinical and consulting psychology, screens applicants for 35 agencies, including detention deputies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Dr. Vincent Skotko, who works in clinical and consulting psychology, screens applicants for 35 agencies, including detention deputies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

TAMPA — One after another, the job candidates come into his office. Psychologist Vincent Skotko sifts through their life stories, looking for signs of their empathy.

He believes he accepts people with good hearts and keeps the others out of criminal justice jobs, including detention deputy openings at the Hillsborough County jail.

But he also knows that time will harden them. Years of dealing with liars and abusers can jade anyone.

"We're all changed by the jobs we do and by the experiences we have. I think the job has the potential to erode an individual's empathy," Skotko says.

On Friday, Skotko is scheduled to speak before a commission examining the Hillsborough County jail after a recent string of inmate abuse claims. The allegations began with the release of a video that showed detention Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones dump a quadriplegic man out of his wheelchair. The commission is looking for ways to improve policies and procedures at the jail.

Panel members said last week they wanted to know more about psychological screenings conducted on job applicants.

Skotko says he thinks the Sheriff's Office should focus on training midlevel supervisors and deputies to better cope with burnout and stress.

Just as coal miners know to watch for symptoms of black lung, detention deputies should be alert to signs the job is getting to them, Skotko says.

"These guys and women, as you've been told and seen, are dealing every day, every day with people who don't want to be there," he says.

Professor Tonia Werner, chief of the division of forensic psychiatry at the University of Florida, evaluates correctional officers for the Department of Corrections. She evaluates people after they have shown signs of trouble.

She pointed to a Stanford University prison experiment, which put students in the roles of the prisoners and guards. All were regular students, but the experiment had to be stopped because the student guards treated the student prisoners so harshly.

"It's not really something that's inherent in these people. It's more situational," she says. "It's kind of the same thing you see in hazing and fraternities."

Skotko, a talkative man with a quick wit, has worked as a police psychologist for about 25 years. His office is tucked into a plain building on Tampa's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. There, he screens applicants for 35 agencies, including detention deputies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He reviews officers involved in internal affairs investigations and shootings.

He jokes that it was the Grand Canyon that brought him to his current job. While getting his doctorate in the 1970s, he evaluated law enforcement personnel at the national park, in part so he could spend his free hours backpacking. He loved the work's practical side. No suburban housewife crises for him.

"It's very real. You're dealing with real issues all the time, and it's in your face," he says. "I sit here, and I make decisions about people's lives all day long."

Skokto declined to say whether he had evaluated specific deputies accused in a recent string of abuse allegations at the Orient Road Jail. But he said he evaluates all detention deputy candidates for the agency.

By the time a candidate gets to Skotko, the person has already gone through a background screening.

Skotko commonly sees three types of applicants: those with young families who seek a stable job; military retirees comfortable with a structured setting; and people aspiring to be patrol deputies.

He administers a battery of tests. The passing rate is 82 percent for detention deputies and 95 percent for patrol deputies, who often have prior law enforcement experience.

He looks for different traits in street deputies and detention deputies. Street deputies need to be flexible and have a sense of adventure, Skotko says. They constantly interact with new people and situations. The work of detention deputies is more routine and structured.

The interview begins with broad questions about family background and education. Skotko jots notes on a legal pad. Then, the questions move toward the specifics: strengths and weaknesses, exercise regime, achievements.

He asks about previous physical altercations, arrests and drug use. He repeats questions already asked in a polygraph test and checks for inconsistencies.

He ends with this question: What would you do if you saw a co-worker mistreating an inmate?

About 2 percent of people say it's none of their business, that they wouldn't report it.

They fail, he says. Most respond that they would report abuse. Though it's impossible to know for sure, he believes that most of them would do the right thing.

"Most of the people in there are well adjusted, nice people," the psychologist says.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813-226-3373.

Psychologist screens for jail deputies 03/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 3:25pm]

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