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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 11:36 pm

Partial disclosure


Jack grew up in Springfield, graduated from high school, joined the Marines, and became a military police officer. After being honorably discharged, he enrolled in college, got a degree in criminal justice, and found a job with the state.

In 2001, when he saw a chance to join the Springfield Fire Department, Jack applied, partly because he "always. . . wanted to help others," according to one of the forms he completed. He passed the physical tests easily and scored high enough on the written and oral exams to rank number three on the preliminary eligibility list.

The next step in the process was the psychological evaluation -- a battery of written tests capped by a half-hour interview with retired psychology professor Dr. Michael Campion. Known among public-safety job seekers as the "psych eval," this type of assessment has long been used to screen law-enforcement candidates and was adopted by SFD about a dozen years ago.

Jack, as it turns out, flunked this test, which is why I'm disguising his identity (his name isn't really Jack). There's something stigmatizing about failing a psych eval, even though Jack's doesn't mention any shocking character flaws. According to Campion's five-page summary, Jack couldn't be a firefighter because he might have "a low frustration tolerance" and "may have periodic episodes of irritability and depressive outbursts" and a tendency to be "impulsive."

Call me crazy, but I expected something a tad juicier. Maybe if Jack had "difficulty learning new material" or "difficulty with the law and school" -- those traits could impede his ability to master all the new skills he might need as a firefighter.

But wait. Those are quotes from Campion's analysis of a different firefighter candidate -- a candidate who passed the psych eval. Clearly this game of assessing potential firefighters is not a sport for us amateurs.

Campion, on the other hand, specializes in this area. As the CEO of Campion, Barrow & Associates, he screens applicants for police and fire jobs for departments across Illinois and in other states. His impressive credentials are spelled out in a 10-page curriculum vitae listing everything from his education (a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Champaign) to a series of children's books he and his wife, Katherine, co-authored in 1982.

However, the "current elected offices and board memberships" section of this document doesn't list Campion's position on the board of directors of the Illinois Family Institute. According to the IFI Web site (www.illinoisfamily.org), this nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is "dedicated to defending marriage, family, and the sanctity of life." Prolific postings by its executive director, Peter LaBarbera, alert members to any political maneuvers or media stories that might promote gay marriage, "deviant sex," abortion, or stem-cell research. Campion and his wife have served on the group's board since 1999.

The psychologist bristles at questions about why he doesn't reference IFI on his CV or on his firm's Web site (www.campionbarrow.com). He says he omitted it for the same reason he didn't mention that he enjoys fishing, swimming, and sailing -- it's irrelevant to his work.

"Municipalities hire me because of my qualifications and my expertise, not because of what party I vote for," he says.

Still, I can't help but think of Jack, who flunked, and the other candidate, whom I'll call Jill (not her real name). Jill had applied for public-safety positions in two other Illinois towns and failed (she ranked 39th on SFD's eligibility list), yet Campion found her fit despite her learning difficulties and trouble with the law. Could the fact that she was married with two children -- Jack was 33, single, and childless -- have made any difference to Campion? Or could the fact that Jill listed "belief in God" and "family values" as her two greatest personal strengths? Surely not. Those traits have nothing to do with public safety.

The reason this testing process matters is that SFD is in the midst of a heroic effort to correct the racial imbalance in its department. The current 211-member force has just three black firefighters, two of whom will soon be eligible for retirement. After being sued by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, SFD is under a consent decree to beef up minority representation.

Both Jill and Jack are black. Ultimately Jill was disqualified from SFD because of problems with her background check. But Jack's exceptionally high rank on the eligibility list suggests that he was a solid candidate. It seems somewhat ironic that his psych eval revealed that he "feels life is generally unfair."

SFD's next round of testing begins Aug. 28. I hope Jack applies.

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