Background Investigation Information for Police Officer Exam (page 3)
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.
How to Read and Answer Questions
Reading questions and instructions carefully is critical to successfully completing the personal history statement. Certain words should leap off the page at you. These are the words you should key in on:
If you see these words in a question, you are being asked to include all the information you know. For example, you may see the following set of instructions in your personal history statement:
List any and all pending criminal charges against you.
This doesn't mean to list only the charges facing you in Arizona, but not the ones from that incident in Nevada last week. This department wants to know about every single criminal charge that may be pending against you, no matter what city, county, parish, village, country, or planet may be handling the case(s). Do not try to dodge instructions like these for any reason. If your fear is that the information you list might make you look bad, you may have some explaining to do. And you may have perfectly good explanations. If you lie to try to make yourself look good, though, chances are you'll be disqualified in short order and no one will get the opportunity to consider your explanations.
Another question you may see is:
Have you ever been arrested or taken into police custody for any reason?
The key words here are ever and any. This department means at any time in your life. If you don't know what is meant by the word arrested, then call your recruiter or investigator and ask. When in doubt, list any situation you think has a ghost of a chance of falling into the category you are working on. The best advice, though, is to ask if you don't know.
Here's a request for information that includes several eye-catching words.
List all traffic citations you received in the past five (5) years, in this or any other state (moving and nonmoving), excluding parking tickets.
In this example, the department leaves little doubt that what you should do here is make a complete list of every kind of violation you've been issued a citation for, no matter where you got it and no matter what the traffic violation was for, within the past five years. They even let you know the one kind of citation they don't need to know about—parking tickets. If you aren't sure what a moving violation is or what a nonmoving violation is, call the department and have them explain. Keep in mind that if an officer issued you a citation on a single piece of paper, you may have been cited for more than one violation. Most citations have space for at least three violations, sometimes more. For example, say that last year you were pulled over for speeding. The officer discovered you had no insurance and your license plates were expired. She told you she was writing you three tickets for these violations, but handed you only one piece of paper. Did you get one ticket or three? You got three.
Once again, ask if you don't know. No one will make fun of you if you are unfamiliar with terminology such as moving violation.
Here are some sample questions taken from actual personal history statements:
List all traffic citations ever received, including the date, place, and full details of each incident.
Submit seven-year driving history from each state in which you have ever held a driver's license.
List all moving and nonmoving traffic citations, excluding parking tickets (e.g., speeding, running a red light, expired registration, no insurance), that you have received in the past five (5) years, starting with the most recent citation. List the month and year each was issued, the type of violation, and the issuing agency.
Your personal references are the people who will be able to give the background investigator the best picture of you as a whole person. Some personal history statements ask you to list up to six people as references, and some ask for only three. You also may be given a specific time limit for how long you may have known these people before listing them. Your instructions may direct you to list only those individuals whom you've known for a minimum of two years, for example. Pay close attention to the instructions for this section, if there are any. Selecting the people for this section is not something you should take lightly for many reasons.
Earlier, you read that by making the investigator's job easier you make your investigation run smoother, you get brownie points, and your background is finished quickly. The personal references section is one area where you really want to make it easy. You'll want the investigator to talk to people who know you well, who can comment on your hobbies, interests, personality, and ability to interact with others. Try to choose friends who will be honest, open, and sincere. When an investigator calls a reference and figures out quickly that the person he or she is talking to barely has an idea of who you are, the red flags will come shooting up. The investigator will wonder why you listed someone who doesn't know you well. Are you trying to throw him or her off track? Are you afraid someone who knows you too well will let out information you don't want known? This is how an investigator will look at the situation. And, at the very least, you will get a phone call requesting another reference because the one you listed was unsatisfactory.
Most investigators expect that you will notify your personal references and tell them that they will be getting a phone call or a personal visit from the investigating agency.Get the right phone numbers, find out from your references what times they are most accessible, and especially find out if they have any objections to being contacted. You don't need a reluctant personal reference. He or she will probably do more harm than good.
Tell your references how important it is for them to be open and honest with the investigator. It's also wise to let them know that there are no right or wrong answers to most of these questions. Investigators do not want to have a conversation with someone who is terrified about saying the wrong thing. And that's what your personal references should expect to have with an investigator—a conversation, not an interrogation. Your goal here is to let the investigator see you as a person through the eyes of those who know you best.
Here are sample requests for references taken from actual personal history statements:
CHARACTER REFERENCES (do not include relatives, former employers, or persons living outside the United States or its Territories). List only character references who have definite knowledge of your qualifications and fitness for the position for which you are applying. Do not repeat names of job supervisors. List a minimum of three (3) character references. Give each person's name, the number of years known, street address, and phone number.
Provide three (3) references (not relatives, fellow employees, or school teachers) who are responsible adults of reputable standing in their communities, such as heads of households, property owners, business or professional men or women, who have known you well during the past five (5) years. List each one's name, home and business phone numbers, street address, and occupation.
Additionally, provide three (3) social acquaintances who have known you well during the past five (5) years. (These must be different people from the three references listed above.)
Additionally, provide contact information for three (3) of your neighbors.
Before You Turn It In
You've filled out the practice copy you made of the personal history statement, made all your mistakes on that copy, answered all the questions, and filled in all the appropriate blanks. Now you're ready to make the final copy.
Part of the impression you will make on those who make the hiring and firing decisions will come from how your application looks. Is your handwriting so sloppy that investigators pass your work around to see who can read it? Did you follow the instructions directing you to print? Were you too lazy to attach an additional sheet of paper, and instead you wrote up and down the sides of the page? Did you spell words correctly? Do your sentences make sense to the reader? (A good tip here is to read your answers aloud to yourself. If it doesn't make sense to your ear, then you need to work on what you wrote.)
Every time you contact the hiring agency, you make an impression. The written impression you make when you turn in your personal history statement is one that can follow you through the entire process and into the academy. In fact, it can have a bearing on whether or not you even make it into the academy because most departments have a method of scoring you on the document's appearance.
Here are some items you might find useful as you work on your application and prepare it for submission.
- a dictionary
- a grammar handbook
- a good pen (or pencil—whatever the directions tell you to use)
Make sure that you check your work, check it again, and have someone you trust check it yet again before you make your final copy.
You now have the information you need to make the personal history statement a manageable task. This is not a document to take lightly, especially when you are now aware of the power this document has over your potential career as a police officer. Remember, it's important that you:
- follow instructions and directions
- be honest and open about your past and present
- provide accurate information
- choose excellent personal references
- turn in presentable, error-free documentation
- submit documents on time
A recruiting department can ask for nothing better than an applicant who takes this kind of care and interest in the application process.
Departments that include a polygraph exam, often in conjunction with the background investigation, do so to encourage honesty. If your only experience with a polygraph is what you have seen in the media, you may be surprised at how one is conducted. You will be questioned by an experienced examiner who will begin by asking you a series of basic questions including your name and address. This is to set you at ease and to establish how you respond to factual questions. Questions will then move to areas where dishonesty could seriously affect your chances for employment, including questions about prior criminal history, drug use, thefts, vehicle accidents, or domestic violence incidents. As with your background questionnaire and interview, always answer truthfully to the best of your knowledge. If you are asked something about your youth, for instance, and you honestly do not remember, say so rather than try to make up something you think the polygraphist or the machine wants to hear.
Show the board how much you want this job. They will check to see when you arrived for your board. An early arrival means you planned ahead for emergencies (flat tires, wrong turns, and so on), that you arrived in enough time to prepare yourself mentally for what you are about to do, and that you place a value on other people's time as well as your own.
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