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Hiring: Background Investigation, Psychological Screening, Part 2

Written by Randy Means

Previous articles in this series on police personnel administration dealt with recruitment and selection and related anti-discrimination laws. This month we focus again on hiring, but with an emphasis on background investigation, psychological screening and character-based hiring. When we hire the right people, train them well and supervise them appropriately, our big problems are largely solved. When we hire the wrong people, we are often in for decades of misery and massive liability exposures.

Background Investigation

Beware of “deskbound” background investigations. There is no substitute for good old-fashioned gumshoe work. The computer is a great tool, but we still need our people out there knocking on doors. Applicants who have resigned from prior jobs, especially law enforcement jobs, need to be thoroughly scrutinized as some agencies will allow employees to resign, unscathed as a matter of record, in the face of investigations and likely terminations.

With those resignations may come non-disclosure agreements precluding your investigator from getting more information through official channels. Face-to-face or phone discussions with the applicant’s former co-workers, however, often lead to unofficial information that can keep you from making big mistakes. Neighbors, local shopkeepers and bartenders, too, can offer very helpful information.

This time and effort costs money, but in this venture it is remarkably well spent. If we can’t afford to send an investigator to the place where the “on-the-ground” background work is needed, use of mutual aid arrangements is a possibility, as is use of private investigators.

Naturally, the computer is and should remain a great resource. In a matter of hours, an investigator can accomplish things from the office that would have previously taken weeks of pavement pounding. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and other social sites are brimming with information which may be relevant or which may lead to other important facts.

Some agencies now require that applicants provide waivers and private passwords, Internet pseudonyms, text messages and e-mail logs as part of expanded vetting processes. Others demand that applicants open private sites at terminals in police facilities and allow full inspection. When applicants refuse to provide information and/or waivers, some departments disqualify for failure to cooperate.

We will be challenged legally in these matters, but courts are expected to interpret the law favorably toward the police employer, given reduced expectations of privacy in what people themselves put on the Internet and strong governmental interests in hiring the right people to be police officers.

Here are a few examples of interest from a recent article in USA Today. In Massachusetts, Malden Police Chief Jim Holland, whose agency has requested electronic message logs, said a recruit’s text messages revealed past threats of suicide, resulting in disqualification. In New Jersey, Middletown Police Chief Robert Oches said a candidate was disqualified for posting racy photographs of himself with scantily clad women. At a Florida conference, a chief narrated a video full of officers’ inappropriate Facebook postings, from sexually explicit photographs to racially charged commentary. All of it, he said, argues for better background checks for incoming recruits.

While racist or suicidal tendencies certainly bear on an applicant’s suitability for police work, sexually explicit postings alone probably can’t be used as the sole basis for disqualification absent some deviant or criminal component. Furthermore, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1995 prohibits discrimination based on lawful sexual activity.

Role of the Investigator

Background investigators may see themselves as the people who “dig up the dirt” on applicants, and departments are justifiably concerned with negligent hiring issues. In our own articles, we emphasize the need to ferret out the likely problem children. So then, is the investigator the eliminator, the non-selector, or should the investigator be more of a selector?

The first step in our recruitment phase was to identify the traits of the ideal officer. This concept should carry forward. No one has a better opportunity to know candidates intimately than the background investigator. Once a list of desired characteristics is identified, the investigator should work to find those applicants who possess the desired traits.

Of course, we need to pay attention to information that would eliminate candidates, and every applicant must be held to the same high standards. However, once certain individuals have been identified as being highly desirable, some additional effort should be devoted to ensuring that those individuals are well-prepared for each phase of the selection process, that they submit all necessary documentation, and most importantly, that they do not lose interest in the job. We don’t want to let the best catch get away.

And who should be your background investigator? If your immediate answer is, “Whoever is on light duty,” you are in good (actually, bad) company. Rather than using whichever patrol officer most recently twisted his knee, your background investigator needs to be a veteran, truth-seeking (not box-checking) investigator—one of your best. If you’re thinking, “My best are all in special assignments,” perhaps you should consider that background investigation needs to be a special assignment—like a homicide detective, but in some ways more important.

If we don’t have such a person handy, maybe a recently retired felony investigator would be willing to come back for some part-time work or maybe even as a volunteer, which might have the added benefit of saving him from a boring retirement. But let’s get back to our story. What are the desired traits that our outstanding investigator will search for?

We’ll help you decide what kind of candidate is best for your department and how to find him as our series continues.

Randy Means is a partner in Thomas & Means, a law firm specializing entirely in police operations and administration. He has served the national law enforcement community full time for more than 30 years and is the author of “The Law of Policing,” which is available at LRIS.com. He can be reached directly at rbmeans@aol.com.

Kevin Lowry recently retired as a chief from the Nassau County, N.Y., Police Department. He is a qualified attorney, arbitrator and hearing officer in matters of personnel and employment. Lowry has held supervisory and management positions in patrol, investigations and administration. He can be reached at Kevin@CALLaCOP.com.

Dennis Conroy, Ph.D., retired from the St. Paul, Minn., police department after 32 years. During that time he worked as a patrol supervisor, vice officer, narcotics investigator, training officer, and director of the department’s employee assistance program. He is a licensed psychologist and now has a clinical and training practice serving police agencies across the country.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2011

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