Why Employment Background Checks Are a Necessity in Public Safety

by | June 19, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article. 

Gordon Graham here and as promised, here is the continuation of the last piece I wrote regarding “getting and keeping good people.” For those of you who have not read the earlier writings in this series I encourage you to do so. This article can stand alone, but it is part of a bigger picture—specifically, some thoughts on Organizational Risk Management, which is the fourth family of the 10 Families of Risk that you face in American public safety.

When you study tragedies in public safety, you identify thousands of “proximate causes.” But when you go back in time and look for the “root cause” of the tragedy, there are really only five things that keep on popping up:

  1. People
  2. Policy
  3. Training
  4. Supervision
  5. Discipline

It is my fervent belief that the problem can become the solution, so it is incumbent on the leadership of every public safety agency to spend time and resources in getting and keeping good PEOPLE; building good POLICY; ensuring that TRAINING is being taken seriously; selecting, developing and mentoring a great SUPERVISION cadre; and, when rules are not being followed, having a DISCIPLINE process in place.

In my last article, I identified the four key ingredients of the PEOPLE component:

  1. Recruitment
  2. Background investigations
  3. Probation
  4. Performance evaluations

That last article dealt in-depth about tools you can use to assist in the recruitment process. The key takeaway: Recognize that if your applicant pool is an applicant puddle, you have a significant problem lying in wait.

Now let’s move onto a discussion of the importance of background investigations. You must take the candidates that are in your recruitment pool and weed out those who are unfit or unable to do the complex jobs in public safety.

When you think about weeding out candidates, your mind probably jumps to testing. And yes, you can test for intelligence and you can test for strength, agility and flexibility. You can test vision and body mass index (BMI). But you cannot test for integrity.

Anyone who tells you that they can test for integrity is taking you for a ride. The only way to “test” for integrity is to recognize that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and if you hire people who have a history of behavior that demonstrates a lack of integrity, you have a problem lying in wait.

Checking past behavior is the crux of the background investigation (BI) process. The purpose of the BI is to find relevant behaviors in the applicant’s past that demonstrate to the hiring authority that the applicant has a level of integrity sufficient to meet the needs of the public safety agency.

I know that is a mouthful, but you must make sure that you are hiring good people. Sadly, as I travel around America and I talk about the importance of comprehensive BIs, I learn that too many agencies stop with a criminal history check. If you don’t get anything else out of this writing, please remember this: The difference between having a criminal history and not having a criminal history comes down to having been caught. Nearly 15 years ago, 19 hijackers brought down four planes and none of the 19 had a “criminal history” in the U.S. prior to their nefarious actions on September 11.

A comprehensive BI for every applicant is essential, and yes, it will cost money to do this. You can spend a little bit of money now to weed out the losers, or you can spend a ton of money in the future to cover the liability costs you will incur when a bad person in your employ does something bad.

Not long ago we learned that a cop accused of shooting juveniles had a past history of inappropriate behavior in another police agency, but somehow was hired by another department. Similarly, I can point to public safety personnel who are fired for “bad driving” who get hired by another agency post-termination. And regularly I read about sexual predators wandering from agency to agency, seemingly without anyone aware of their illegal and immoral behavior. If you want a daily diet of this, please visit www.policemisconduct.net and after reading the headlines, dig a little deeper into what flaw in the agency’s hiring process contributed to the mess it is now in as a result of the officer’s bad behavior.

In my live programs I provide startling examples of lax hiring processes that have allowed sexual predators, thieves, murderers, bullies and other bad people into police and fire departments around America. Public safety is not some “evil cauldron” that hires good people and turns them into bad people. Occasionally we hire bad people and put them in a position of public trust and they intentionally do bad things while in our employ.

To avoid this, you must develop a comprehensive background investigation process that involves:

  • Selection of qualified investigators
  • Development of appropriate and legal application documents
  • Identification and utilization of validated sources of information
  • Processes to analyze this data and compare it to the applicant’s version of their life as they have documented on their application

You do not have to reinvent the wheel here. In any given state, the State Police has such a process in place. You can learn a lot from their process and, along with your competent legal counsel, develop a process that works for your organization.

My guess is that very few of you will have any problem with what I’ve written so far. Here is where I will lose some of you. Initial (prior to hire) BIs are absolutely essential, but I am recommending to you that the process be extended throughout the employee’s tenure. Every five years or so, we need to conduct another BI to make sure that the person we hired is still the person we hired.

Some people go bad over time, and in too many agencies the only time we find out they have gone bad is when it ends up in tragedy. Our control measure against that happening is an ongoing BI process. I recognize that this involves paying a certain cost today to address a potential future problem, but again, “you can pay me now or you can pay me (more) later.”

If you doubt the importance of BIs, consider this. Nine years ago, a terrorist investigation successfully thwarted the plans of the “Fort Dix Six,” who plotted to take over Fort Dix and kill U.S. soldiers. After their arrest, investigators found something chilling in the house where the Fort Dix Six had been living: applications for local law enforcement agencies, one in Pennsylvania and one in California. This should be a wake-up call for every leader in American public safety.

I look forward to visiting with you again in my next piece on the importance of taking the probation process seriously. Until then, please work safely and try to incorporate the principles of risk management into everything you do.


TIMELY TAKEAWAY—As I am writing this at the Delta Sky Club in Jacksonville, I just had a great conversation with a young man who will soon be getting out of the Army and hopefully he will someday be part of the CHP. He now has some basic information on how to move forward and an “interest card” with the direct line of a CHP recruitment officer and a website where he can look at the opportunities offered by the CHP. If everyone in every law enforcement organization did this daily, we would be much better off. Each of us in public safety has an obligation to increase the size of the applicant pool.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

More Posts
Share this post:

The Briefing – Your source for the latest blog articles, leadership resources and more