Content provided by Miller Mendel
Every law enforcement employee can recall the months it took them to get through the background investigation process before getting hired. They remember the chore of completing a 20-plus-page detailed personal history statement asking about all aspects of their life to complete their background packet. That packet becomes the foundation of a much larger pre-employment investigation profile, sometimes holding hundreds of pieces of paper, all relating to the candidate’s lifelong, personal history.
Most law enforcement employees and agency top executives never get the opportunity to discover just how much work goes into researching each candidate’s suitability for employment, especially in the background investigation phase. However, those who hold specialized positions within the recruitment, background investigation, and Human Resources sections of police departments know how much diligence, labor, and time it takes to vet a candidate thoroughly.
Detailed background investigations have been a staple of law enforcement for generations. However, today’s climate requires agencies to collect, analyze, store, and share candidate information more quickly, efficiently, and carefully. Failure to move quickly can cause agencies to lose applicants to other agencies. An efficient, auditable system that allows for detailed analysis can help with data privacy requirements and help avoid legal and public scrutiny from negligent hiring.
Here are three critical areas every law enforcement administrator should examine to ensure their candidates are screened using nationally established best practices and standards.
Professional Background Investigation Staff
Experienced criminal investigators are a natural choice for some agencies to use for their pre-employment background investigations. That said, agency administrators should also consider other skills when selecting staff responsible for background investigations. Pre-employment background investigators have a completely different role than criminal investigators. While a small fraction of the background investigation is to screen for and sometimes even investigate illegal activity, background investigators must perform other tasks with expert knowledge. Taking a detective from a property crimes or major crimes unit does not automatically mean they have the knowledge, skill, and ability to perform the role of a background investigator. Background investigators need to understand personnel rules, employment law, and the vast difference between criminal interrogations and pre-employment background interviews.
Some agencies have written protocols or policies in place covering these fundamental pillars. Those who do not should implement training for all members who work within units involved with hiring, explaining the unique features and nuances of this role. The background investigation is a cooperative effort of multiple stakeholders. Recruiters, investigators, administrators, and legal should work with Human Resources staff to create a training program that informs new investigators of HR policies, rules, best practices, and areas of high risk related to a pre-employment background investigation and interview.
The laws relevant to background investigations generally include federal, state, and local laws. Many of these laws have been adopted or amended recently to limit what types of information may be asked for and/or considered in screening employees. Sometimes these limitations apply to law enforcement; sometimes they don’t. Employers must educate staff members working within background investigations and recruiting sections about the applicable regulations and best practices, focusing on workplace discrimination and harassment. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides many publications for review that outline the basic foundations of protected areas, such as:
- Age Discrimination
- Equal Pay and Compensation Discrimination
- Disability Discrimination
- Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act
- National Origin Discrimination
- Pregnancy Discrimination
- Race/Color Discrimination
- Religious Discrimination
- Sexual Harassment Discrimination
Background investigators should be conscious of and compliant with these laws in all aspects of the pre-employment background investigation process, including documenting candidate behavior, reference summaries, and their interactions with the candidate and references verbally and in writing. Many criminal investigators do their best work in environments with fewer restrictions and may initially fail to realize the importance of the requirements specifically related to backgrounds. Failing to clearly outline all legal guidelines for backgrounds can open your agency up to avoidable liability.
Background Investigation Efficiency
Background investigations exist because law enforcement administrators must find critical thinkers who are service-minded, trustworthy, and ethical. These qualities are important to serve the public and defend their agency’s reputation. This is not an easy task, and it should come as no surprise that background investigations are generally the longest and most complex part of the law enforcement hiring process.
Over the last 50 years, law enforcement applicant numbers have risen to historic highs and dipped to historic lows. During the golden age of recruiting for law enforcement, when applicants were plentiful, backgrounds served a vital purpose of highlighting the most suitable candidates above all the rest. There are other times when fewer acceptable candidates apply, and these moments often generate a collective sigh from administrators who bemoan the attrition rate of candidates throughout the process and how many labor hours are wasted on failed backgrounds.
eSOPH is a background investigation software system designed specifically for law enforcement background investigations. It cuts background investigation time in half while also adding many tools for agencies to ensure consistency and thoroughness throughout the investigative process and improve the overall quality of the candidate vetting process. A few benefits delivered by eSOPH include:
- Significantly reducing the amount of labor per background investigation
- Eliminating the need for physical file storage with secure cloud storage, which also protects data from being destroyed or lost
- Automating the purging of candidate files within customizable file retention periods
- Ease of access by all file reviewers from any electronic device
- Controllable, digital file-sharing with other agencies to identify problem candidates who omit background information as they apply for multiple agencies
- Completely customizable candidate electronic statements of personal history and reference questionnaires to conform with evolving departmental, local, state, and federal regulations
- Technology to automate simple processes like criminal records checks
- Integrated tools to spot inconsistencies in candidate and reference statements
- Customizable positions to fit the investigative needs of every agency
- Investigative audit trails to ensure compliance with data access policies
Electronic records sharing and agency accountability
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has vocally supported via a resolution “the establishment of a nationally accessible database for decertified law enforcement officers” ( International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), 2021) and provided standards in their Policy Framework for Improved Community-Police Engagement in support of the National Decertification Index (NDI) managed by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST).
Law enforcement administrators should familiarize themselves with the NDI and have an agency representative request access early in the background process to ensure your agency isn’t hiring someone who was previously decertified. While many POST directors utilize this system, the time to find out your candidate has previously been decertified should be at the beginning of the background investigation process. The POST review of candidates usually occurs a few weeks before the start of your police academy. Access to a system like the NDI can eliminate the wasted time and potentially wasted vacancy from an avoidable oversight.
In the same framework from the IACP, agencies are called to implement improved background investigation processes. Electronic background investigation systems like eSOPH and accountability databases like the National Decertification Index have helped many law enforcement administrators achieve this goal.
Data privacy and security laws are a significant consideration when leveraging technology to make your background investigation process more efficient and secure. In the IACP’s support for the NDI, they state, “The IACP is also opposed to any effort to make the database publicly available and searchable, because of officer safety concerns.” ( International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), 2021) While their primary concern is the safety of officers, agencies have a duty to protect their candidates’ personal and personnel-related information. Likewise, Miller Mendel, the inventors of eSOPH, also publicly support data privacy and security, specifically regarding how agencies should protect candidate data from commercialization. They have a framework to ensure applicant personal data is only shared with vetted officials from other law enforcement agencies. When using eSOPH, agencies maintain first level control over their data entered by both applicants and their agency’s eSOPH users. Additionally, agency administrators can ensure compliance by all users who access candidate investigative files via the audit functions documenting user actions within the system.
The time to prepare for evolving background requirements, increased community expectations, and a competitive hiring climate is now. Make your background investigation process more efficient in 2022 and beyond.