Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Starting a job in law enforcement is actually an extensive process involving several stages rather than a simple act of recruitment. As a candidate you need to be aware of the complete police officer hiring process and the common application steps involved prior to submitting your application for a given position.

First of all, there are certain personal qualities and basic requirements that each agency needs covered by you before even considering to start the hiring process. You need to be smart, open, quick-learner and team-player if you want to work in law enforcement. In addition to that, you need to be medically and physically fit to be able to perform the tasks required by the job and cope with the stress involved. Then you need to pass the police written exam and oral board interview with a score high enough to place you among the desired prospective candidates for the position.

There is, however, one very important step in the entire application process, which often fails to receive the proper attention it deserves – the background investigation. This is a process that determines whether you are eligible to become a law enforcement officer or not. You need to have a clean record in order to be approved by the agency that is hiring, and this doesn’t involve only your criminal record. Below you will find detailed information about the background investigation, what do the investigators look for, how long does it take and which are the most common disqualifiers. Passing the psychological screening is a vital step. There is an online preparation package, Master the Psychological Exam, which includes a study guide, question and answer analysis, practice exams, and helpful testing strategies.

Police background check: What do they look for?

There is something that you need to understand and remember: the background investigation starts at the very moment you submit your application form. As the hiring process is lengthy, it is possible that you might have changed your current address, phone, job or any other information provided in the original application. If this happens, make sure to notify the agency immediately. This will score a point in your favor as it shows that you are responsible and you are able to follow up on a task you have started without being prompted. In addition, that will save time, since the investigators won’t have to go back and forth until they reach the needed destination.

So, which are the main areas that the police background investigation covers:

  • Friends and family – Be prepared for an intrusion in your personal space. The background investigation includes checking with your family, friends and relatives about what kind of person you are. The investigators will visit your birth place and the place where you currently reside and ask questions to find out personal information about you. You can let your friends know that they might be visited, but do not ask them to lie for you, it will do you no good. You should also note that if you have been divorced in the past ten years, your ex-spouse will also be interviewed.
  • Education – The investigators running your background check can obtain transcripts from your high school and college. They will varify the educational information you put on your application. They may also interview some of your former teachers and professors and even classmates to check how you. Included in this check will be if there was any disciplinary actions taken against you in school.
  • Employment history – The background investigation includes checking with your previous employer/s what are the reasons you have stopped working for them. A positive referral from your previous work place is always a plus. On the other hand, if you were fired as a result of misbehavior or failure to fulfil your duties, this will greatly affect your chances of getting a job in law enforcement, especially if it has happened more than once.
  • Criminal record – If you have any felony convictions, this may make it difficult for you if not possible to continue with the hiring process. If you are going to enforce the law, you should be able to live according to it and have a clean criminal record. Speeding tickets, record of domestic violence, gambling are also disqualifiers that will take you out of the list with shortlisted candidates. Be sure that if you have committed a crime that was unnoticed in the past, it is highly possible that it will be detected during the background investigation. Therefore, it is better to confess any small misdemeanor rather than try to hide it or lie about it. Any domestic violence convictions, even a misdemeanor, will prohibit you for carrying a firearm and thus becoming a law enforcement officer.
  • Credit history – The background check includes your financial behavior as well. The investigators will check your credit history to see if you are responsible towards your financial decisions or not. This reveals how trustworthy you are. Part of the check is also to make sure that you will be able to cover your debts (if any) on the salary you are going to receive as a law enforcement officer. In case you have very high debt or you show lack of responsibility to your financial obligations, this may be interpreted as a sign that you are prone to bribery.
  • Drug abuse – Any current drug abuse is a sufficient reason to be disqualified. The tolerance for past drug use will vary be department. It will also vary by type of drug, how long ago it was used, and the amount of use. This new tolerance includes the usage of marijuana but does not extend to cocaine, hallucinogens or the modern designer drugs. Any sustained drug use is also a firm disqualifier.

Which are the common police background check disqualifiers?

As you can see, the areas covered by the police background investigation deal with all spheres of your life. There are many things that are considered a serious disqualifier and will prevent you from taking the job of a law enforcement officer. Here is a list of the most common disqualifiers included in the police background check:

  • Felony convictions
  • Serious misdemeanors
  • Current drug use or past drug abuse
  • Dishonorable discharge from military service
  • Bad credit history
  • History of domestic violence
  • Not clean driving license
  • Unreported past crimes
  • Past or current gang affiliations
  • Poor employment record
  • Incorrect, false or incomplete information given on the application form

You can use the above list as a guide whether you can become a law enforcement office or not. If you have any of the given disqualifiers in your past it may be wise to abandon the idea of becoming a police officer and focus on some other career.

One other common disqualifier, that is worth mentioning, is having tattoos that depict offensive language or symbols. Tattoos, in general, are accepted by most agencies nowadays, especially when they are not on a visible part of the body, such as the face. You may need to check with the department you are applying for, if they have any specific requirements, such as wearing long sleeves all the time.

If there is something in your past or present that bothers you and you believe that it may lead to disqualifying you from the police recruitment process, you may check it directly with the department you are applying for, ask friends who are familiar with the process or visit specialized forums, where other applicants and successful recruits share their issues and give advice.

How thorough are police background checks?

Based on the information above, you can come to the conclusion that the police background checks are quite thorough and do take time to be completed. Investigators won’t hesitate to travel to your place of birth or the town where you have gone to school in order to make a complete profile. Questioning extended family members and even random neighbors is also part of the investigation.

The background check is a substantial element of the entire hiring process and it is quite thorough. Do not expect that any of your past will remain hidden and do not be tempted to give false information or intentionally omit any facts. Be aware that under the U. S. Criminal Code (18 U.S.C. § 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines up to $10,000 and/or 5 years imprisonment.

Be as open and honest both in your application form and in the follow-up questions and this will be only a plus for you.

How long does a police background investigation take?

The process of background investigation is quite sophisticated and includes checking several facts and places in order to get full account of your past activities. Depending on whether you have resided in several places or worked for several employers prior to applying for a law enforcement job, it may take anything for couple of weeks (rarely) to several months.

If you are applying for a position in any of the federal law enforcement agencies, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the complete pre-employment investigative screening, which includes collection and review of fingerprints and the Questionnaire for National Security Positions, the polygraph exam, and the background investigation, can take 12 months and even more. This is due to the fact that for most of the positions the candidate needs security clearance that they are eligible for access to classified information.

All in all, the background investigation is a lengthy process and you need to be patient and remain at the agency disposal until it is completed.

What if you fail the background check?

There are cases when you do not get the dream job of a police officer only because you fail the background check. And this is not because you have any of the major disqualifiers as listed above but due to some minor inconsistencies. You are left wondering why this has happened and does it mean that you have no chance to become a police officer at all. Do not expect, however, the agency to give you any feedback or reasons why. The reason for this most probably is due to the fact that they were candidates who were at least on the same level as you in respect to the other elements of the hiring process but didn’t have those minor issues. Let say that your background check revealed you had 1 speeding ticket when you were at the age of 19 or you were released from your previous job because you failed to meet your target. These issues are not that serious but still they put you behind a candidate with a completely clean record. What you need to do is continue checking the job openings and applying for the position you want. It is possible that you can be the better candidate for another department.

It is important to note down, however, that if you have failed the police background check because of any of the major disqualifiers as described above, you may not stand a chance to become a police officer. In this case it is better to stop pursuing career in law enforcement and direct your interests and efforts to another field.

As a conclusion it is important to point out that the police background check is a valid and major factor in the hiring process of a law enforcement officer. Do not underestimate it and be as honest as possible with the person running the investigation. You are not going to win any points by hiding elements of your past or lying in your application, on the contrary – there is a chance that the evaluation will be in your favor if you are open and straightforward about any minor mistakes you have made in the past.