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William Harvey

William Harvey

William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.

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Background Investigations Can Break You

Your youthful indiscretions will often return to haunt you.

March 12, 2012  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author

As you apply to become a police officer or deputy, you must meet state and agency eligibility requirements. You'll also need to pass a thorough background investigation.

The background check ensures applicants with criminal pasts or current involvements are filtered out. So if you have a tawdry background, you need not apply.

I'm always amazed by the number of applicants who get caught by background investigations. If you think the background investigator will wake up stupid that morning and let you slip through, please think again. Departments invest vast monies and resources to ensure that you are what they and their communities need. If you know deep down that you can't make the cut, save yourself some aggravation and potential embarrassment. I've seen applicants taken away in handcuffs.

Let's review a few areas of concern.

Your past credit history won't trigger an automatic rejection. I know times are hard, and you may have too many student loans or bad credit card discipline. Departments often view bad credit as an integrity indicator that opens the door for deeper review. If you have bills, do your best to tidy them up, because good effort will be rewarded.

In earlier times, drug use was an automatic rejection. Many departments now follow a policy requiring no recent use and a several-year gap. Some agencies will allow youthful indiscretions. Read all the application materials thoroughly to find out if you meet the requirements.

Please don't run to the local health-food store to pick up some ground-up herbs or poultice to mask use; they don't work. Many departments are switching to hair testing, which offers a more definitive and longer test window. Do some soul searching here. If you expect to test "hot" (positive), re-think your approach.

Your rock-and-roll days will haunt you, as well. One acquaintance of mine lost a higher-level security clearance job in private industry because of a spring break arrest three decades ago. Your college days at a resort town can still linger in the background. A drunken "boys gone wild" moment can end a career before it gets started. For younger readers, think twice before you get drunk and stupid on spring break.

What about trying to evade polygraphs or voice-stress analysis? Some see these methods as electronic voodoo, while others see them as scientific investigative tools. We still use them to test our applicants, so don't try taking anything to mask the readings. When applicants asked me for suggestions to help them get over on the box, I told them to eat several boiled eggs before the test. It doesn't work, but it tells you how gullible they are. These tests can be stressful. Just listen closely to the directions and follow them. Signs of deception give us clues to open doors for further inquiry.

You'll also be given psychological tests. There are no cheat sheets or crib notes to get you the correct answers. Again, listen and follow directions. Giving rehearsed answers usually diminishes your results.

At every step in the application process, applicants need to fully read and understand what they're embarking on. Listen to the departmental contact who's working with you, and ask questions. Above all else, be truthful.

Comments (24)

Displaying 1 - 24 of 24

Motorgoon @ 3/12/2012 7:17 PM

Some issues with this article. Many agencies pride themselves on stringent backgrounds and they get that applicant. If you haven't lived you won't know how to do police work. We had a "perfect candidate" who flopped out of FTO because he was so perfect. He never seen domestic violence and had a religious background. He froze on a domestic call and asked they not use profanity in his presence. So, no, a perfect background isn't always the best idea.

JReb @ 3/12/2012 11:48 PM

I fully agree with your point, Motorgoon. When I was first starting out in the early 90’s, I got beat out of a position by younger kid due to background. He was just 21, had lived at home all his life, and had no life experience whatsoever. I had a 3 y/o bankruptcy and a 12 y/o trespassing conviction from my college days. Even though I had higher test scores, 6 years military, etc, he got the job. 2nd week on the job, his FTO got assaulted and was fighting with a DB on the sidewalk. Kid just froze…didn’t help, didn’t call for help, nothing. Just stood there peeing himself. Needless to say, that was his last shift.

However, the article is still good advice for applicants. Don’t try to “beat the system.” And, if you know you have issues, don’t waste everybody’s time.

Thor69 @ 3/13/2012 10:16 AM

Some of the BEST street cops I know had a somewhat checkered past. Sometimes "Been there, done that" comes in handy. I have seen too many squeaky clean cops who are almost useless.

Random @ 3/17/2012 2:34 AM

I have a question for any one that has a not trolling answer. I am from a less than affluent region. I was never part of a gang, but most people I grew up were. I have never used illegal drugs or sold such, but growing up my friends did. I have never started a fight, but I have been forced into such on many an occasion. I have worked sense 13yrs old.5 of my years worked are in private safety. I am prescribed Adder all XR to sleep and study mathematics. As an investigator what would you ask?

Marshal @ 6/12/2012 6:57 AM

Here is my thinking on this. All of these departments that have such a great and strict hiring process seem to be the ones that are having the officers in the most trouble. This process is actually kicking out very good officers that may have made a bad decision, once, and now these departments are shunning them but the officers that they did hire that made it through the strict process are getting them sued. Why is it that one negative erases years of positive? My department has relied less on the machines and decided a better in person background check with members of past departments or neighbors or other people that know the candidate. I don't know about any of you but I have had conflicts with supervisors and I know some that wouldn't be helpful for me to get a job. So therefore going past the supervisor and talking to co-workers is a good way to find out about a person. Start thinking outside of the old box of background investigations and do what cops should do best, investigate. Taking something for what you see on paper and not checking into it wouldn't work for a criminal investigation so why does it work for a background investigation? Start checking things. I found, after digging, that the bad comments from a former employer of one of my guys was that the guy was pissed that my employee didn't support him for his run for public office publicly and was out to get him ever since. Now if I had just gone with the write ups that he has had then I would never hired him but I investigated and found out the reasons why and I have the best employee that a boss could ask for. The one we all wish we could clone and have more of. I also have hired experienced officers, in the same way, and have had great luck and they are great mentors for the young officers.

Eric @ 12/28/2012 4:21 PM

I am trying to fill out an application for Baltimore and they want every job I've ever had since I graduated high school. I will be 34 in February. I have had a thousand jobs. Some I left on good terms and some I did not. This was while I was in college and then again in graduate school. If I didn't like the job, I would leave. Period. I have been in my latest job for five years. This job is in my chosen field of criminal justice and is for the criminal courts where I live. Do I really have to put down every single job? On the application, it also wants two contacts from each place. I don't remember! Help.

Patrice @ 3/31/2013 6:43 PM

I am thinking about pursuing a career in computer forensics are as a crime scene investigator. I do not know where to begin, I feel extremely lost. PLEASE HELP!!!!!!

branden @ 4/24/2013 4:44 PM

i am 27 and have never been in any criminal trouble stemming from me, however a friend i let move in with me committed armed robbery and said i helped plan it, as of now its just pending charges that wont go anywhere but would that keep me from passing a background check to become a part time town marshal?

joefriday @ 10/24/2013 11:22 AM

Background Investigators always have THEIR best interest in mind and not the applicant's. During the Pre-investigative stage; in order to make their job easier, they tell you to be 100% honest about everything and if you don't, the polygraph will catch it. After being honest about e.g. porn use at work, stealing etc. they use that as justification to dismiss you from the application process. They like this because they have thousands of applicants to screen and also they're not forced to rely on a polygraph which they know can be inaccurate or references HAND PICKED by YOU. So as a rule of thumb, if you think you will be disqualified if you confess something moral/character related, LIE. However, if it's something legal, tell the truth because legal issues are always documented. Bottom line, you must have a strategic approach to getting through the screening process. Unless you are Mr. Perfect, your honesty will get you dismissed. A high percentage of those who made the cut lied.

jose @ 10/31/2013 10:40 AM

Hey joe do LEA share background information with other departments? I have done some stuff in my teens. I am 36 now and I am getting dqed for things I did when I was 16. I have been dqed twice and i am thinking of going a different approach. I know alot of rejects who have done way worst than I did make the cut.

E.J. @ 1/24/2014 3:32 AM

I was just POST certified in California to become a dispatcher. When I was 20, I dated a 17 year old and we (though only a few times) had consensual (though not legally-speaking) sex. When I was 21, I hired a prostitute. These deeds have never been repeated. I am now almost 28 and no charges were ever made and I have a clean record. Consider this background, should I even bother applying? I have received a lot of mixed answers to this question and I want to know so that if not, I can move on to another career path.

cocobeware @ 6/30/2014 7:16 AM

So JoeFriday has a point however there is another side to it. When it comes to drug use, unless you have a reputation as a using recreational drugs often at any point in your life it would be difficult for an investigator to prove as much unless you confirm you can confidently lie. BUT- where using drugs several more times than you actually admitted may not have DQed you had you admitted it, if you get caught lying about it you are automatically DQed so its a gamble. Everyone lies. Everyone has a past...if you don't then what experience do you draw on to make decisions however, I have never met so many self-righteous people than when I became a cop. As Rakim once said, "It where you're from, it's where you're at."

jmel @ 7/10/2014 8:47 PM

Will I still make become a crime scene investigator with a att forgery on my record I lost my job at 18 and got convicted on it when I was 19?

Andrew M @ 8/31/2014 5:20 PM

Hi, I'm 23, currently active duty but getting honorably discharge in a few months. I have served my time and im currently in the application process to become a louisiana state trooper. My question is i have been to a juvenile detention center when i was 11 or 12. My mom, im sure did it to scare me, but i still got booked none the less. I'm guessing the charges are under disturbing the peace and what not. If my files are even still there due to Hurricane Katrina hitting and wiping everything out in 04. So im curious if i mention this to them do you think they will Deny me? Also was brought to a hospital for depression treatment, but was cleared. My mom just felt i was depressed due to right before Katrina my father was fattally wounded in a bank robbery while on an off duty detail. Anything helps, Thanks!

ryan @ 10/17/2014 10:47 AM

So I was unemployed and my credit was ruined just to stay above water and my work history is a little shaky will I have too many problems?
I am squeaky clean as far as drugs arrests and my last traffic ticket was in 09.
Anybody have any insights as how much trouble I will have?

John @ 4/19/2015 2:51 PM

Sometimes I think the whole process is BS. Worked in law enforcement when I was 19, and didn't have a lot of life experience. Passed the background but was pretty green on the job (ended up leaving it). Today I'm 37 and have a lot more experience--experience as a military cop, honorable discharge, some degrees, many more jobs. I also have more they could pick apart now that I'm older.

I haven't committed crimes, but when I went in for another background last week, they asked me to disclose crimes I have been convicted for (there are none), as well as things I've done that would have been crimes had I been caught. So I ticked off every little thing, such as running a red light, etc. that could be construed that way. I also had to list any family members that have done prison time (there are three). By the end of the interview, the background investigator was fed up with me. I thought, screw this; I'm out. I don't need to be scrutinized this way. I called the background off.

m-tec-dud @ 6/22/2015 5:15 PM

I have an older brother who I hardly known and never bother to list him on my background since he has a last name thats different from mine. CAN my BC investigator find out about him since I only found out 3 months ago that he live nearby my home. I am saying this since I had my interview 6 months ago. and did not list him. he has a felony.

Anthony @ 12/20/2015 6:29 PM

I want to enroll in the police academy, but I need to know if I'd qualify before I tried! I don't want to let my self down, but I don't have the cleanest background.

ToAnthony @ 1/31/2016 10:05 PM

To answer Anthony nobody will know if you qualify until you apply! No sense in paying for the police academy out of pocket if you already say you don't have the cleanest background. Save yourself the trouble and spend that money on schooling! Furthering your education will benefit you no matter what field of work you get into!

CoryN @ 2/15/2016 6:31 AM

For some reason I can't seem to get past the application process. Is there a such as being too honest? I smoked weed in high school and some other stuff. Nothing too heavy in my opinion, but I can't get pass the application process. I have great credit, honorable discharge, secret clearance, great home life, everything and I mean everything you need to be a great officer. Is there a way I can get past this process with putting everything on the table. This was in high school by the way. Never been charged with anything besides one speeding ticket three years ago.

mike @ 3/10/2016 11:04 AM

can you become a cop with being blind in one eye toxoplasmosis?

mike areva @ 3/10/2016 11:06 AM

can you become a cop being blind from one eye and were born with toxoplasmosis

Ky0708 @ 4/29/2016 7:00 PM

Someone I know wants to be in the police... They are almost done and getting their background checked. They once got into a fight with their wife and it got physical. Once. And it was a punch to the arm and she pushed him. Would this really stop someone from getting in?

Jon @ 5/20/2016 9:04 PM

I am gonna be kind of forthcoming but I am curious about 1 thing. I am in Recovery, from substance abuse and alcohol. In my past I have experimented with almost everything besides meth crack and heroin. I smoked pot habitually when i was younger. then drank alot. I am trying to get a job in law enforcement. I am 20 years old and in Army Reserves. I got over 2 years clean. since getting clean I have worked as a Special Police Officer (glorified armed security guard with limited police powers) Still doing the whole AA thing. Do you think there would be any consideration fo a career in law enforcemen

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