Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.


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 [email protected] or 813-226-3373.

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series


    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena


    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack


    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.