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What To Expect During a Police Officer Background Check

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To join a federal, state, or local police force, you must fill out an application, pass a written exam and a physical fitness test, and complete an in-person interview. But the toughest test may be the background check to ensure that you have not only the aptitude, but also the necessary moral fiber to carry a badge.

Before a police force or agency will hire and begin training you, you are required to give permission for that agency to perform a thorough background check. You will also be fingerprinted. They will then gather information about your personal and credit history as well as any criminal offenses on your record.

Some agencies are more far-reaching in their examination, requiring personality assessments and even polygraphs.

In this Article

What is Examined in a Background Check for Police Officers?

Background checks for law enforcement officers are much more thorough than having a hiring manager check your employment history, run a Google search, and call a few references. Nearly every personal aspect of your life that can be publicly accessed could be subject to inspection. The minimum requirements for acceptance vary from one jurisdiction to another. Some of the most common checks include:

Credit History

Like most prospective employers, a police department will start by assessing your credit history. They won’t just obtain your credit score or rating, but a complete financial picture of your past. It will show your bank accounts, current and past credit cards, what debts you owe and to whom, and whether you are making payments on time.

Education Records

Police forces often obtain transcripts from high school and college, and some teachers and professors might be interviewed to find out about your classroom demeanor and study habits. In some cases, investigators may randomly select former classmates to interview about their impressions of you.

Criminal Associations

You will likely be fingerprinted so a criminal background check can be completed. The check reveals arrests, convictions, any pending cases, and sometimes, traffic offenses. Sealed, juvenile records, however will not be assessed. That said, the police organization may ask you for all your previous addresses so they can check for any criminal records in other states or jurisdictions.

Military Records

If you served in the military, you could be asked to provide your discharge papers. The police force might also request your military records, which detail your dates of service, ranks, promotions, awards, and any disciplinary actions.

Friends and Family

Depending on the state or local jurisdiction, investigators sometimes travel to the candidate’s hometown to interview family members and friends to ensure the person is not trying to hide anything.

Social Media

Of late, one area that’s more highly scrutinized is social networks. Police departments may search your social media accounts see whether you’ve posted comments or photos that show poor judgment or questionable ethics.

Stephen Webb, a retired Virginia state trooper who teaches criminal justice classes to people who aspire to be police officers, tells his students to delete compromising posts.

“Unless you want your mother or the police to see it,” he tells them, “it’s time to clean it up.”

Drug Use

It should be no surprise that law enforcement candidates undergo a drug test. Use of illegal drugs at any time in a candidate’s history is a strike against you, but not always an automatic deal-breaker. Use of drugs like heroin, cocaine, or crystal meth often result in disqualification, unless the drug use happened in the distant past and you’ve been clean since. As for marijuana, it’s complicated. Although many states have legalized marijuana use, it is still illegal federally.  

“They’ve lowered the threshold on marijuana,” says Vesna Markovic, professor of criminal justice at Lewis University in Illinois. “But there’s still a threshold.” Markovic explains that many law enforcement organizations have lowered the time limit for past drug use from seven years to three months. “Drug policy used to be much more stringent,” she says.

However, she advises that if you are planning a career in any kind of law enforcement, you should stay away from using marijuana. Dealing any kind of illegal drug is a felony and will instantly put your application in the reject pile.

Top Reasons Candidates are Disqualified During Background Checks

Law Enforcement agencies have written policies for what items in your background check automatically disqualify you. They differ from one organization to the next, but generally include:

  • Felony convictions
  • Misdemeanor convictions that indicate poor moral judgment
  • Current drug use or any history of drug trafficking
  • Abuse of prescription drugs
  • Serious or frequent driving offenses, such as a DUI or reckless driving
  • Any behavior showing disregard or disrespect for law or authority
  • Behavior that shows bias or discrimination toward certain people or groups
  • Domestic violence
  • Dishonorable military discharge
  • False information on the application or the omission of important facts
  • Certain physical limitations, such as vision or hearing problems

Frequently Asked Questions about Law Enforcement Background Checks

Q: Will the background check look into my internet browsing history?

A: It’s possible. Most browsers, including those on your phone, save your search history. Your web searches reveal your interests, and if your interests are violent, anti-social, or discriminatory, the police department may hesitate to hire you.

Q: Will they look at my social media posts?

A: Yes. Social media posts, especially photos, can show a person’s character and behavior. The people or groups you follow and the posts you “like” or share also tell a lot about you.

Q: How far into my past will they look?

A: It varies, but three to seven years is common.

Q: Will I be subject to a background check if I am promoted?

A: Possibly, especially if it’s a major step up in the chain of command. However, most promotions are based on years of experience, performance reviews, and development of skills.

Q: How long does a background check take?

A: Longer than you might think. A complete background check could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

Beyond the Background Check: What Else is Involved in the Application Process?

The law enforcement organizations want to know that you are psychologically and physically fit for the job. As such, they evaluate many personal characteristics and traits which might not be readily apparent during a background check.

Psychological Screenings

On the job, a police officer is often placed in dangerous and highly stressful situations. You may need to make snap decisions and you’ll have to stay calm under pressure. Many police forces will use a personality assessment called the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory (MMPI) to screen for psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, anger, and antisocial problems. The test asks you to read questions about feelings and behavior and agree or disagree. A psychologist will interpret the results.

Polygraph Test

If you apply for a high security position, such as a job with a federal agency, you may be subjected to a polygraph test. You may be asked some very personal questions which may seem irrelevant to the job. These lie detector tests are sensitive, and the operators are quite experienced, so it’s always best to tell the truth.

Physical Fitness

Most police departments will require you to meet minimum physical standards before they will accept your application. There may be standards for height, weight, vision and hearing acuity, and age. You may be asked to perform a physical fitness test that includes running, bending, and lifting weights.

Interviews

Just as with any job application, interviewing with supervisors is required. Be prepared to explain why you want to be a police officer, what your goals are, and how you might handle a stressful situation or a crime in progress.


karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

stephen webb

With professional insights from:

Stephen Webb

Principal Lecturer and Criminal Justice Lead, Regent University

vesna markovic

Vesna Markovic

Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Law, and Public Safety, Lewis University