Background Investigation Information for Police Officer Exam (page 2)
Your background investigation will be based on the information you supply to your investigator. You provide the information through what is commonly called a personal history statement.
You will be asked to provide many details of your entire life, possibly including every school you ever attended; any address you lived at for the last 15 years; any jobs you had for the same period of time and whether you were ever fired from a job; whether you served in the military and what type of discharge you received; information on your driving record and any vehicles you own; other property in your name; your credit history; whether you have ever been arrested; whether you have used drugs at all or alcohol to excess… you get the idea. Questions may also pertain to parents, step-parents, or guardians; past and present spouses; and siblings (including step-siblings).
In addition to answering questions and being photographed and fingerprinted, you will be required to sign release forms that permit your investigator to gain access to your personal records. You will also be required to submit a number of documents, most which will have to be certified as accurate by their sources or by a notary public. These documents might include your educational records; employment records; military history and discharge papers; driving record and vehicle insurance forms; mortgage or other loan forms; and any papers pertaining to arrests or a criminal history.
You are likely to be asked to include up to three references who are not family members. Do not forget to ask these individuals whether you may use their names; if they agree, make sure their addresses and contact information are correct. If your investigator cannot contact your references, this will show up as an incomplete portion of your investigation and may lead to delays or even termination of your application.
Each of your answers and documents will be checked by your investigator, often a police officer already employed by the department. You will be interviewed about your responses by your investigator, particularly about any that are incomplete or do not seem to match with the timeline of your life.
There are two iron-clad rules to follow for getting through your investigation. One is to start putting together your documentation as soon as you know you have made it to this step: Collect your paperwork; ask parents or guardians for earlier residence addresses if you were too young to remember them; be sure of your replies (now is not the time for guessing); and think about who you will ask to serve as personal or professional references.
The second bit of advice is even more important—do not lie about anything in your past. Not everyone has made it to adulthood without something they would rather not talk about or have publicly known. When you decided to become a police officer, you signed away those secrets. But police departments are not comprised only of perfect people. Whatever you may have been told, not everyone who gets hired is without any small blemishes. Certain youthful indiscretions may not disqualify you if you can explain the circumstances, but falsehoods will assuredly eliminate you from further consideration.
Rarely will two agencies conduct the background investigation exactly the same way, so rather than making yourself tense trying to provide all the information and all the documents that comprise the background investigation, you may decide that concentrating on the agencies where you sincerely want to work is a better use of your time and efforts.
Some departments also include the Law Enforcement Candidate Record (LECR), a 185-question exam that asks about your personal experiences, your education, your work history and habits, your relationships with family members and friends, and your feelings or attitudes on a variety of aspects of your life. Like the psychological exam, there are no "right" or "wrong" answers and your best course of action is to be truthful. Many of the questions may seem to repeat earlier questions in slightly different ways. This is intentional; it is meant to catch you if you are dishonest because the test is based on the premise that eventually you will forget to lie and will answer truthfully.
Each of these types of tests, whether the LECR or a psychological or behavioral test, departments use these to develop a profile of your personality and attitudes and compare this with statistical analyses of successful officers. These statistical profiles help departments determine where you fit on the continuum of officers they have hired.
Ready for Action
So, you are as prepared as you can be. You've made your decision on where you are applying, and let's even assume you are at the point in the application process where you've received the personal history statement. Before you set pen to paper, make a copy of the form. Do not write on it, breathe on it, or set it down on the coffee table without making a copy first. After you have a copy, put away the original for now. (You will be using the photocopy as a working draft and a place to make mistakes.) Eventually you will transfer all the information you have on your practice copy onto the original. And then you'll be making a copy of your original. You may be spending lots of time on this project and using more than a few dimes in the copy machine before this is all over, but it will be time and money well spent. Especially if the unthinkable happens:
Your phone rings. It's your recruiter. "Gee, this is Officer Jones at Friendly P.D. recruiting and I have a little bad news. We can't seem to find that application you sent. Could you make us a copy from the one you have at home and send it out right away?"
Be sure to make copies of your completed personal history statement and accompanying documentation you submit and keep them in a safe place. Hold on to these copies! You need to review this document before the oral board contacts you, not to mention the possibility that you may need this information to complete other applications years down the road.
Personal history statements vary from department to department, but the questions most applicants ask about filling out these tedious documents have not changed over the years. The following are a few questions and comments made by actual applicants as they went through application processes across the United States. The responses to and comments about these questions will allow you to learn from someone else's mistakes, thereby giving you an advantage over the competition—and having an advantage in this highly competitive field can never hurt!
"What do you mean you don't accept resumes? It took me four hours to get this one done!"
A formal resume like the one you may prepare for a civilian job may not be much good to a law enforcement agency. Although criminal justice instructors in many colleges suggest that their students prepare a resume, it's always best to call and ask a recruiter whether or not to bother. Why go to the trouble if the agency is going to throw away the resume upon receipt? Most agencies rely upon their personal history statements to get the details of your life, education, and experience, so save yourself the time and money when you can. Some departments do, however, request that you submit a resume. They use it as an additional screening element. So it's always best to ask first.
"I didn't realize the personal history statement would take so long to complete, and the deadline for turning it in caught me by surprise. I got in a hurry and left some things blank."
The letter this applicant received in the mail disqualifying her from further consideration probably caught her by surprise as well. As you know from reading this chapter so far, a personal history statement requires planning, efficiency, and attention to detail. Most police departments demand accuracy, thoroughness, and timeliness. There are entirely too many applicants who have taken the necessary time to properly fill out an application for a busy background investigator to bother with an applicant who has left half of the form blank and isn't quite sure what should go in the other half. In fact, many departments will tell you in their application instructions that failing to respond to questions or failure to provide requested information will result in disqualification.
"I read most of the instructions. I didn't see the part that said I had to print."
Read all of the instructions. Every sentence. Every word. And do so before you begin filling out your practice copy of the personal history statement. In fact, you should read the entire document from the first page to the last page before you tackle this project. Have a notepad next to you, and as you read, make notes of everything you do not understand. You will be making a phone call to your recruiter after reading the entire document to ask questions. It's important to read the whole document because the questions on your pad may be answered as you read along.
"No one is going to follow up on all this stuff anyway. It'd take way too long and it's way too involved."
A good background investigator will be thorough in following up on the details of your life. That's his or her job. When all is said and done, the investigator must sign his or her name at the bottom of the report documenting the investigation. It's not wise to assume someone will put their career at risk by doing a sloppy job on your background investigation. A thorough investigator will take as much time as it takes to do a good job. The good news is that you can earn brownie points by making that investigator's job as simple as possible. Give as much information as you possibly can and make sure that information is correct. When you write down a phone number, make sure it's current. For example, if you worked at Jumpin' Jack's Coffee Parlor four years ago and you still remember the phone number, call that number to make sure it's still in service before you write it down. Nothing is more irritating to a busy investigator than dialing wrong number after wrong number. If that's the only number you have and you discover it's no longer in service, make a note of this so the investigator doesn't assume you are being sloppy.
When you turn in a personal history statement, you are building on the reputation you began forming from the moment you first made contact with the recruiting staff. An application that is turned in on time, is filled out neatly and meticulously, and has correct, detailed information—that is easily verified—says a lot about the person who filled it out. Not only will an investigator have warm fuzzy thoughts for anyone who makes his or her job easier, he or she will come to the conclusion that you will probably carry over these same traits into your police work.
The investigator, the oral board, and the staff psychologist all will be looking at how you filled out the application as well as what information is contained in the application. Police officers will build a case for hiring you (or not hiring you) based on facts, impressions, and sometimes even intuition. With this in mind, every detail is worth a second look before you call your personal history statement complete. Ask yourself:
- Is my handwriting as neat as it can be?
- Did I leave off answers or skip items?
- Do my sentences make sense?
- Is my spelling accurate?
- Are my dates and times consistent?
- Did I double-check the telephone numbers?
- Did I double-check the ZIP codes?
"I figured you could find out that information more easily than I could. That's why I didn't look up that information. After all, you're the investigator."
And this applicant is probably still looking for a job. The personal history statement is a prime opportunity for you to showcase your superb organizational skills, attention to detail, and professionalism. Do as much of the work as you can for the background investigator. For example, let's say you worked for Grace's Record Store. The business went under after a few months, and you moved on to other employment. You're not sure what happened to Grace, your immediate supervisor and the owner of the business, but you do know a friend of hers. Contact that friend, find out Grace's address and phone number, and give this information to your investigator. Going the extra mile shows initiative, and you are going to get the extra credit points.
It's not uncommon for a major police department to get thousands of applications per year. Most of the applicants have the same credentials to offer as you do. Do all you can do to stand out from the crowd by showing your efficiency, professionalism, and accuracy.
"I know I got disqualified, but it's only because I misunderstood the question. I didn't want to ask about it because I didn't want to look dumb."
If you do not understand a question, ask someone. By not making sure you know how to properly answer a question, you run the risk of answering it incorrectly, incompletely, or not at all. Any one of these mistakes can lead to your disqualification if an investigator thinks that you are not telling the truth, or that you are unwilling to provide the information requested. Don't take chances when a simple question can clear up the problem.
"You know, I didn't have any idea what that question meant, so I just guessed."
Never guess. Never assume. This advice can never be repeated too often—if you don't know, find out. Answering your questions is part of the job for recruiters or background investigators.
"I lied because I thought if I told the truth, I'd look bad."
Never lie about anything. As far as police departments are concerned, there is no such thing as a harmless lie. Supervisors don't want people working for them who cannot tell the truth; other officers don't want to work with partners whom they can't trust; and communities expect criminals to lie—not police officers. Your credibility must be beyond reproach.
Let's look at an example. One applicant told his recruiter that the reason he didn't admit to getting a ticket for an unregistered car was because he thought the department would think he wasn't organized and couldn't take care of business. Which would you prefer for a potential employer to know about you—that you lie instead of admitting to mistakes, or that you make mistakes and admit to them readily? Telling the truth is crucial if you want to do police work.
"I listed John Doe as a personal reference because he's the mayor and I worked on his campaign. Why did my investigator call me and ask me to give him another reference?"
Choose your personal references carefully. Background investigators do not want to talk to people because they have impressive credentials. They want to talk to them so they can understand you are a little better. Investigators will know within minutes whether or not a reference knows you well. Personal references are important enough to warrant their own in-depth discussion later in this chapter, so read on.