Prospective Halifax police employees may no longer be subject to a scientifically sketchy lie detector test after a council vote on Tuesday.
Last June, council asked for a staff report “on developing an evidence-based formal policy for polygraph testing for the purposes of human resource management, especially during the selection process for any or all employees of the municipality.”
Halifax Regional Police use polygraph testing to screen their own sworn officers and civilian employees, as well as other HRM employees and contractors who have access to HRP buildings or systems. HRP spends about $260,000 annually on the testing, as El Jones highlighted in a 2020 piece for the Halifax Examiner.
As the Examiner reported last year, councillors asked HRP Chief Dan Kinsella to justify the spending during budget talks:
“Polygraph is a tool, and it’s a tool that’s used primarily investigatively,” Kinsella said. “I’m not an expert on it. I don’t know all the details, but I do know that it is a tool that has value to our investigative ability. I’ll leave it at that. Subject to different opinions on it, or whether it’s good or bad, there are a number of police services across the country that use polygraph investigatively.”
Kinsella also confirmed HRP uses polygraph testing “as an employment screening tool to ensure security clearances for candidates for work.”
Coun. Shawn Cleary moved for the staff report after a report from Matt Stickland at the Committee Trawler, who told the story of a man applying to be a custodian at HRP buildings whose life was upended following a polygraph test.
The report coming to council on Tuesday, written by acting human resources executive director Laura Nolan, acknowledges the tests are unreliable.
“Current academic literature on the use of the polygraph consistently questions the validity of the polygraph as a tool in pre-employment screening. Many scholars and scientists discount the process entirely while others suggest strategies for increasing its efficacy as a supporting tool (as opposed to an excluding tool) in hiring,” Nolan wrote.
“The field of polygraphy still has strong proponents defending it as a both a science and an art form, but even within that field, there is the acknowledgement that polygraph practices, policies and processes must change if they are to be considered relevant in the current climate and be seen as a culturally and socially acceptable tool.”
As such, Nolan recommended council direct chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé to “Discontinue the use of the pre-employment polygraph exam for all positions and contracted services within the Municipality by no later than September 30, 2022.” The motion also calls for a review of positions currently requiring a polygraph to determine what sort of screening measures might work instead.
The ban of pre-employment polygraphs wouldn’t mean a lower police budget, however.
“If Council accepts the recommendation to discontinue the use of [pre-employment polygraph] exams for all positions, one of the existing resources currently performing PEP would be redeployed to conduct alternative screening processes,” Nolan wrote.
“At this time, it is expected that the change would be cost neutral and existing staff resources can be redirected towards the new screening process.”
HRP would also presumably continue its use of polygraphs “investigatively.”